On love and war

It’s the summer of 1864, and a Confederate soldier lies in a military hospital in northern Virginia. His war wounds are healing, and he stares longingly out the window, gathering the strength and courage to begin a journey, alone and on foot, to his home at Cold Mountain, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thus begins one of modern literature’s epic journeys — one that finds precedence in Homer, Dante, Joyce, Melville and myriad tales of the hard road home.

Charles Frazier has crafted a convincing, historically accurate and gorgeous tale — based on the true story of one of his long-dead relatives. A year after the book’s release, it remains firmly planted in the upper echelons of the literary world (it’s still in the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list).

Actually, Frazier tells two tales in Cold Mountain. One is of the travels and travails of Inman, the disillusioned soldier; the other is of Ada, the genteel and educated young woman back home who struggles to survive and make do in a war-ravaged South. Ada does not waste her time pining away. She learns, with the help of her young friend, Ruby, how to manage the family farm: how to plant and harvest crops; raise and butcher animals; barter for trade goods. The novel is equally about the wandering soldier and the newly awakened stalwartness of a Southern belle suddenly confronted with the harsh realities of her time and situation.

The lyrical beauty of the book is centered in Frazier’s ability to vividly convey geography, time of day, mood, weather, the natural world, characters and the slow shift of seasons — all without allowing the eloquence of his language to obstruct the view. Consider, for example, a scene in which Inman approaches a fellow hospital resident: “The blind man was square and solid in shoulder and hip, and his britches were cinched at the waist with a great leather belt, wide as a razor strop. … He sat with his head tipped down and appeared to be somewhat in a muse, but he raised up as Inman approached, like he was really looking. His eyelids, though, were dead as shoe leather and were sunken into puckered cups where his eyeballs had been.”

Frazier uses the vernacular and the everyday objects of rural, mid-19th century America to great effect, lovingly recreating the feel of the era (which is no small feat in itself) so that the reader is allowed to step assuredly and completely into the book.

The large facts and the small details of Cold Mountain ring true. The sometimes violent scenes are viscerally immediate, and the affection one feels for Inman and Ada could only be created by a writer deeply steeped in the recognizable humanity of his characters. We’re inspired to truly care and worry about them, as if they were our old friends.

This astonishingly sure-footed first novel is already becoming a classic. Cold Mountain confronts war without being didactic, just as it eases toward love without becoming sentimental. It’s a work of historical fiction that helps restore that somewhat rusty art form, just as it upholds the fading notion that the linear novel — a story with a beginning, middle and end — well told, can still be a powerful experience, one that needs no deconstruction.

Charles Frazier, local boy made good, visits Asheville

Fast becoming North Carolina’s most famous native son (he lives outside Raleigh and grew up in the small western North Carolina towns of Andrews and Franklin), Charles Frazier is a novelist who almost wasn’t. His wife, Katherine, smuggled the first 100 pages of what was to become Cold Mountain to celebrated Southern writer Kaye Gibbons, who was so singularly impressed that she promptly descended on the Frazier household to persuade him to quit his teaching job at N.C. State University and devote himself full-time to writing — a ridiculously risky venture that Gibbons never thought she’d recommend to anyone.

Amazingly, the ploy worked. Gibbons eventually sent the manuscript to her own agent, and Atlantic Monthly Press — one of the largest independent publishing houses in America (representing such big-time authors as P.J. O’Rourke, Jim Harrison and Norman Mailer) snapped it up, despite that, in its history, the press has only published a handful of first-time writers.

To date, Cold Mountain has sold almost two million copies and has spent 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (18 weeks at number one). Last November, Frazier won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Anthony Minghella, director of the Oscar-winning The English Patient, will write and direct the movie version of Cold Mountain, which is already in pre-production — pretty heady territory for a guy who once believed that the novel he’d spent seven years of his life writing would end up “neatly boxed in a desk drawer in the basement.”

Fresh from a promotional tour in Italy, Frazier arrives in Asheville on June 4 to promote the good works of the Asheville Arts Alliance and to read from Cold Mountain. The reading begins at 10:15 a.m. at the Diana Wortham Theatre and costs $10. At noon, Frazier will be the guest speaker at an Arts Alliance celebration luncheon (marking the end of their 1998 fund drive) at the Radisson Hotel. And at 4 p.m., Frazier will speak to local high-school students at the Carolina Day School.

For more info on Frazier’s visit to Asheville, call the Arts Alliance at 258-0710.

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