Imagining the past

What would have happened if Inman had lived? If you saw the movie Cold Mountain or read Charles Frazier’s book, you probably asked this question. Inman was the wounded Confederate soldier who left a military hospital in Raleigh, walked across the state to his mountain home and his beloved Ada, only to have his life cut short by a bullet from the local home guard. Would Ada and Inman have married and lived happily ever after? Or would the hard mountain life of the late 19th century have pushed them into a life of family discord and abuse?

I thought about these questions recently as I read Cataloochee (Random House, 2007), a first novel by Asheville author Wayne Caldwell. The new book is set in the areas around Big and Little Cataloochee Creeks in Haywood County, northwest of Asheville, in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It follows the lives of several mountain families during the time of the Civil War until they were pushed out of their homes in the late 1920s, when their lands were acquired for the new park.

The story begins when the lead character, Ezra Banks, runs away from an abusive father to enlist in the Confederate Army. Caldwell’s description of the beginning of the journey reminds me of Frazier’s writing in Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons: “On a cold November Saturday just after his fourteenth birthday, Ezra saddled the horse, a gaunt, swaybacked strawberry roan, as his father’s drunken snores shook the back of the house. He tied his stuff—a piece of a shovel, a clasp knife, a wooden spoon, two shirts and a pair of overalls—in a bedroll back of the ratty saddle. His mother trudged to the barn to give him a pone of corn bread and a leather pouch his old man had hidden behind a hearthstone. He felt coins inside. ‘Son, will I ever see you again?’”

Ezra keeps that leather pouch of coins and it plays an important part at the end of the story. After serving in the Confederate Army, he becomes an ambitious and successful farmer, marries into a family with landholdings in Cataloochee, and starts his own family.

Ezra’s early successes are based on a tenacious spirit that borders on ruthlessness. When he renews an early addiction to alcohol, the ruthlessness is unleashed and ultimately leads to tragedy.

Would something similar have happened to Inman? Maybe, but only Charles Frazier could say for sure.

Frazier does say good things about Cataloochee. He writes that its “rich cast of characters spans generations, and collectively their stories form a brilliant portrait of a community and a way of life long gone, a lost America.”

Readers who enjoyed Frazier’s books will almost certainly want to read Cataloochee. So will fans of Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, Isabel Zuber’s Salt, Dot Jackson’s Refuge, Sheila Kay Adams’ My Old True Love and other books that take readers into the North Carolina mountains in times gone by and share with them the hard lives of the people who lived there.

A poignant subplot in Cataloochee sets it apart from the other great North Carolina mountain novels. Nobody would argue that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not one of North Carolina’s (and Tennessee’s) greatest treasures. Thousands and thousands of acres of wilderness have been preserved and protected from being overrun by those of us who would love to have a home in that lovely wilderness, which would destroy the same wilderness. Instead of being turned into places for humans to live, the park will always be a place to visit and experience a little bit of the way things were before people took over.

This happy result is not the entire story. In Cataloochee, Caldwell writes about the pain and sense of loss that were felt by families who had lived in the Cataloochee area for generations when they were forced to move to make room for the new park.

Unfortunately, progress for the majority is often accompanied by the sacrifice of others. When we remember, thankfully, the blessings of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and similar treasures, we should also say a prayer of thanks for the sacrifices that made them possible.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch]

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