Inman, a war-scarred amalgam of Odysseus and Christian of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” quits his hospital bed and begins walking home to the Blue Ridge Mountains early in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.”
Three bloody years as a Confederate foot soldier have mangled Inman’s body and spirit, and he has had enough. Packing up food, clothes, his ungainly looking LeMat’s pistol - two-barreled with nine .40-caliber cylinders revolving around a shotgun barrel - Inman sets out from Raleigh on a bitter Homeric journey through a collapsing South.
His destination is Cold Mountain, described by Inman’s Cherokee friend Swimmer as a “healing realm.” There Inman hopes to reclaim his lost spirit as well as Ada, the young woman he left behind when he enlisted.
Frazier’s gritty, allegorical first novel is being billed as the biggest literary event since David Guterson’s 1994 novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Its vivid description (“Her face was white as a stripped tendon in her cold grief”), carefully researched details of 19th-century mountain life and dialogue reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy make gripping reading.
The 46-year-old college professor revised “Cold Mountain” 15 times during seven years of work before Atlantic Monthly Press bought it in December 1995. The publishing house gave Frazier a six-figure advance, rare for a first literary effort.
Just weeks into publication, there have been five press runs totaling 60,000 copies, and “Cold Mountain” is being promoted in full-page ads in The New York Times Book Review and New Yorker magazine. Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Books plan reissues.
Frazier, who lives with his wife, Katherine, and their 12-year-old daughter, Annie, north of Raleigh where they breed horses, grew up near Cold Mountain and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After teaching for several years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Frazier and his wife returned to North Carolina in 1986. He set out to learn all he could about the history and natural history of the mountain counties. One day, his father told him about a great-great-uncle, W.P. Inman, who was wounded at Petersburg in 1864 and walked home to Cold Mountain from a Raleigh hospital.
Frazier was unable to learn much more about his great-great-uncle or his great-great-grandfather Inman, also a Civil War veteran, so he invented a life for Inman that included some of his relatives’ experiences. For that reason, he kept the Inman name.
“Cold Mountain” cuts between Inman’s adventures on the road and the struggles of Ada, a Charleston belle who finds herself “perpetually hungry” and alone on a mountain farm after her father Monroe dies.
Along comes tough, pragmatic Ruby, who teaches Ada how to farm and barter in an economy verging on collapse. She trades her piano for livestock and foodstuff, and learns to attend to the land.
“Simply living had never struck Ada as such a tiresome business. After breakfast was done, they worked constantly. … When Monroe was alive, living was little more laborsome than drawing on bank accounts, abstract and distant. Now, with Ruby, all the actual facts and processes connected with food and clothing and shelter were unpleasantly concrete, falling immediately and directly to hand, and every one of them calling for exertion.”
Meanwhile, Inman tries to hasten through North Carolina’s low country to reach the pure mountain air that he craves. His suspenseful journey includes encounters with murderous Home Guardsmen hunting down deserters, strange backwoodsmen and fellow wayfarers, other flotsam of the Civil War South and a woman goatherd. To survive, Inman often must resort to the violence that comes easily to him after his long army service.
“His spirit, he feared, had been blasted away so that he had become lonesome and estranged from all around him as a sad old heron standing pointless watch in the mudflats of a pond lacking frogs. It seemed a poor swap to find that the only way one might keep from fearing death was to act numb and set apart as if dead already, with nothing much left of yourself but a hut of bones.”
Only Cold Mountain, “a place where all his scattered forces might gather,” offers Inman a thread of hope.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘COLD MOUNTAIN’ EXCERPTS Associated Press Inman: “Inman had seen so much death it had come to seem a random thing entirely. He could not even make a start at reckoning up how many deaths he had witnessed of late. It would number, no doubt, in the thousands. Accomplished in every custom you could imagine, and some you couldn’t come up with if you thought at it for days. He had grown so used to seeing death, walking among the dead, sleeping among them, numbering himself calmly as among the near-dead, that it seemed no longer dark and mysterious. He feared his heart had been touched by the fire so often he might never make a civilian again.” Ada and Ruby: “The rudeness of eating, of living, that’s where Ruby seemed to aim Ada every day that first month. She held Ada’s nose to the dirt to see its purpose. She made Ada work when she did not want to, made her dress in rough clothes and grub in the dirt until her nails seemed to her crude as the claws of a beast, made her climb onto the pitched smokehouse roof and lay shakes even though the green triangle of Cold Mountain seemed to spin about the horizon. Ruby counted her first victory when Ada succeeded in churning cream to butter. Her second victory was when she noted that Ada no longer always put a book in her pocket when she went out to hoe the fields.”
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