Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997) Literature and War Readalong December 2011

The last book of this year’s readalong, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain,  is the only book on the American Civil War.

Cold Mountain juxtaposes the stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who was badly wounded at Petersburg, and Ada, the woman he loves, who waits for him in Cold Mountain. It describes Inman’s slow and long return to Cold Mountain and how Ada copes on her own after her father has died.

I have only just finished this book and I am still a bit stunned. This is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel. The structure is interesting from the beginning on. The chapters alternate between Inman’s and Ada’s point of view and are symmetrical. Motifs and themes that are described in one chapter will be echoed in the next. This is fascinating. At the beginning, for example, we see Inman at a hospital. He was badly wounded and most of the time he is lying in bed and watching the world through a window. The window is like the frame of a picture.

That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man.

In the next chapter we see how Ada struggles. Her father has died and left her nothing but a farm. The farmhands have all gone, either to war or they are hiding. Ada has lived almost all of her life in Charleston and has only lived in Cold Mountain for a few years, because her father was ill, and the mountain air was thought to be beneficial. She can sew, paint, play the piano and loves to read but never in all of her life has she worked with her hands. She doesn’t know how to keep the farm going, how to produce anything. She spends long stretches of time sitting in a chair, reading and staring through a window that starts to look like a frame, the sky outside like a painting.

There is nothing that Inman experiences, that Ada’s story doesn’t echo and vice versa. They both struggle to survive, they both find unlikely friends. I liked this structure a lot but there is more to this novel. It’s exceptionally well written. Words are chosen carefully, the prose is crystal-clear and manages to paint a picture of a breathtaking landscape that we see change with the seasons.

Maybe Ada would have starved or contracted an illness and died if Ruby hadn’t turned up at her farm. From that moment on her life is changed forever. Ruby has never read a book but she is so resourceful and attentive to every little detail of nature, one almost expects her to spin straw into gold. There is nothing she cannot use, mend, transform. And she knows how to teach Ada to become as capable as she is. All Ada knew so far was a life of leisure and that life now turns into work. It’s interesting to see how useless money has become during the war and how valuable it is to be able to produce your own food.

After a while, when plants grow and they have produced all sorts of things, the women are not only independent but almost completely self-sustaining. And they have become very close friends. They sit on the porch at night and Ada reads to Ruby. They talk and sit like an old couple. Content. At least Ruby is, Ada still longs for Inman.

After a while I started to dread his return. Their life seemed so peaceful, I couldn’t imagine how Inman would fit in. What would happen, would Ada send Ruby away, would they live together?

All this time Inman is walking and hiding. He is constantly in danger, he is a deserter after all and the country seems to have become lawless. Anyone can shoot you at any time. That’s what happens to him anyway. He is taken prisoner, shot and left for dead. He finds refuge with an old woman, who, like Ada and Ruby, lives completely on her own, with a little herd of goats.

This is a very powerful episode. The war is constantly present throughout the book. Inman remembers the battles, the dead men, the wounded. The butchery. But nowhere is this as much in the foreground as when he speaks with the old woman. I’m not very familiar with the American Civil War and the impression I got from reading Cold Mountain was that maybe initially there was a cause but very soon there were a lot of lawless people attracted who came in for the change and the freedom to go about killing people as they pleased.

While Ada and Ruby live an almost sheltered life, Inman, in crossing the country, sees the many faces of this war. The poverty, the illness, people who die for no reason, the cruelty, the violence. His own biggest fear however is that he is too damaged to live a happy life with Ada. The old woman says something that made me think and I wondered whether this is really true:

That’s just pain, she said. It goes eventually. And when it’s gone, there is no lasting memory. Not the worst of it anyway. It fades. Our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do to bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.

Something that struck me more than anything, besides the beauty of the language, the artful structure and the wonderful complexity of the characters, is how American Cold Mountain is. It’s a hymn to the landscape and the history of the country, that includes everything, the mythology of the Cherokee, the stories of the settlers, the possibilities that this country offers to resourceful people.

Cold Mountain is a stunning novel and I’m sorry, I feel haven’t done this book any justice. It’s a complex, rich and a very rewarding book. It’s rare that I feel envious of characters in a book but at times I thought that there could hardly be a better life than the life led by Ada and Ruby.

If you have seen the movie, it is still worth, reading the book. It is so much richer.


Cold Mountain was the last book of the Literature and War Readalong 2011. The first book of the Literature and War Readalong 2012 is Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. The discussion takes place on Monday, January 30 2012.

29 thoughts on “Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997) Literature and War Readalong December 2011

  1. Thanks for hosting this years readalong. I had never participated in anything like this before and I really enjoyed it. I can rise to challenges and the structure suits me. I am proud I read all but one (History) and would have never read any (except The Things We Carried) without your recommendation. You broadened my literary horizons.

    Your review is great. I wish I could capture the book as you did, but I am not as in tune to themes and symbolism.

    1. I loved the structure of alternating chapters (with one exception – why?). You knew when one chapter concluded, you were going to pick up again with the other story line.

    2. The book is extremely well written. It’s a book that you read each sentence.

    3. Favorite quotes:
    “The Federals kept coming long past the point where all the pleasure of whipping them vanished. Inman hated them for their clodpated determination to die.”

    “[The Federals] have come up with a fresh idea in warfare – make the women and children atone for the death of soldiers.”

    “He was as excited as a boy getting to do a job with men for the first time.”

    “They would grow old together measuring time by the life span of a succession of speckled bird dogs”.

    4. I wonder if Ada and Inman are in love. They have been apart for years and their reunion is kissless. I like that dynamic, however. I think their marriage would have been solid.

    5. All the main characters are intriguing. Ada is not likeable, but she is believable. I fear that if I was a woman in her situation I would have been much the same in personality. Her relationship with Ruby is fun and thank God there is no lesbian subplot (right?) Inman is a great character – a gentleman who is forced to tap into his dark side to survive against evil. The minor characters are all endearingly bizarre.

    6. The best scene was at Junior’s cabin. That was surreal. Unfortunately that peak was followed immediately with the books valley when Inman is forced to marry Lila (why? he was about to be led off by the Home Guard) and then miraculously survives being shot (why didn’t they just kill them immediately instead of marching them several days?)

    7. I got the impression that the book was a romance written by a botanist. I counted over 40 different flowers/weeds mentioned in the narrative. That does not count the trees, bugs,and other critters.

    8. I now know how to run a farm. For instance, what to do to an aggressive rooster.

    9. As though its not obvious enough, Ada reads The Odyssey to Ruby.

    10. Weaknesses:
    – Ada and Ruby are not really affected by the depredations mentioned throughout the war
    – the miraculous survivals of Inman and Stobrod strain credulity (I could accept one, but not both)

    Overall, I think it may have been my favorite of all this years titles.

    • You are welcome, Kevin, I was glad to have you join. I discovered a lot of books I would not have read otherwise as well. For example Cold Mountain. I was hoping it would be good but sure at all. It has surpsassed my expectations and would have been on my Best of list if I had finished it earlier. Yeah well.
      It wasn’t an easy review as one could focus on so many things.
      It’s also interesting to see the abandonend Cherokee village, to know they were murdered and to compare it to the treatment of the slaves, what the white people did to them.
      (As an aside The first of your favourite quotes was on my mind while watching Talvisota btw I thought it gave the movie a Cvil War feel, with all tose Russians coming and coming)
      I could have added loads of quotes there are so many great sentences in the book.
      Their marriage would have been very solid I think. I belive they wre shy that’s why they seemd rather distant at first.
      I did like Ada, funny you should say you didn’t like her.
      The marriage between Inman and Lila is the only thing I didn’t get and the subsequent shooting was odd but not impossible. I guess these guys drank to much and did whatever they felt like.
      Frazier knows the region, flora and fauna, it’s amazing. I really liked that although it did challenge my vocabulary.
      Was it your favourite readalong book or of all the books you read?

    • Litlove, I know exactly what you mean. There was such a buzz around this book when it came out and later the movie, never would I have thought to pick it up but I absolutely wanted to include a book on the American Civil War.
      From all I know so far, I think there should be at least some similarity with Willa Cather. Ada and Ruby are such strong characters, it’s a pleasure to read about them and the prose is stunning, the love for detail amazing. I’d call it a tour de force. I would love the hear what you think.

  2. As far as the old goat woman’s take on pain: “That’s just pain, she said. It goes eventually. And when it’s gone, there is no lasting memory. Not the worst of it anyway. It fades. Our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do to bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.”

    I think she (and Frazier) are confusing physical pain with mental pain. For instance, the pain of childbirth will lessen as time goes on, otherwise women would not have a second baby. However, the pain of losing a child in childbirth will never go away. Inman would have eventually forgotten the pain of the bullet wounds, but not the painful sights he saw in the war.

    I personally think Inman would have been your typical veteran who had been at Fredericksburg and the Crater. He would have been a stable individual with terrible nightmares and a refusal to discuss the war.

    In reference to the war, the main parts of the book are set in an area that was torn between allegiance to the Confederacy and the Union. Also, the war was being lost so the Rebels were getting desperate. Those two dynamics combined to create the chaos and disorder. Evil yahoos (Teague) will take advantage of a situation like this. A losing war allows the strong to prey on the weak.

    • I agre, also thought that the goat woman must speak of physical pain. At least that is how I experinece it or see it in people. A trauma is hard to forget.
      I’m not sure Inman was typical. There are men who come out of war completely unaffected and I’m not sure whther that isn’t the majority. He did remind me of my father in a lot of things.
      I found it great to see this moment of the war. That’s so different from “Gettysburg” or even other Civil War movies I’ve seen. Maybe “Ride with the Devil” captures this a bit.

  3. I don’t think I ever would have considered reading this before because the clips from the movie made the story seem so cheesy and melodramatic. Like Litlove, though, I am now intrigued by what you say about the writing here even though historical fiction–with a few notable exceptions, like Lampedusa’s wonderful The Leopard–isn’t my cup of tea at all. Anyway, sounds like a great way for you to have wound up your Lit and War Readalong for the year. Congrats!

    • Thanks, Richard, I think it isn’t what you would expect it to be. It’s not cheesy at all. The movie wasn’t able to convey a third of this book. The writing is astonishingly good. It didn’t even feel like a historical novel, much more like a 19th century novel. It’s not an American version of Miss Smilla. 🙂 (Which is what I was afraid of before starting it…that it would be just a bubble)

  4. My favorite was Killer Angels (just kidding). I think Cold Mountain would have to be at the top of my list. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had not seen the movie already. I will soon be posting a Book/Movie review.

    You must read The Black Flower now. It has justifiably been compared to Cold Mountain. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on it. You should replace one of this years readalongs with it. It’s not like you’ve never done that before LOL (see first sentence).

    • I have already got it, I will read it but maybe not right after this one.
      I just watched the movie… I had absolutely not the tiniest idea of it anymore. It’s not a bad movie, it has it’s moments but only after having read the book, before I found it quite flat, now, I suppose it was like I was still sort of reading in parallel. In any case the book is much better. It’s even one of those to re-read.

    • Thanks Skye. The two main characters are great. I was thinking female characters like that is something you usually only get in fantasy or YA where they can fight for themselves and don’t need a man. I really enjoyed that. I hope you will like it, should you read it.

  5. I’m sorry I didn’t get to reread this book–I really had hoped to. I read it when it first came out and thought it was excellent then, but as so much time has passed I can’t recall enough to really talk about it. I stil have my copy and will likely reread it eventually. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much–I know what you mean by being so floored by a book that you feel like you can’t write about it–but you did so beautifully! My copy of the Dunmore came in the mail this week and I already have it sitting on my night stand. I hope to do better next year, though I think I only missed three of the books from this time around!

    • Thanks, Danielle. I was surprised I found it so difficult to review. There was so much I could have said. I did hope it would be good but I didn’t expect it to be so well written and with such an interesting structure withouth feeling like an experiment. It is one to re-read and I should now, once and for all stop saying I do not like historical fiction. I do not like historical genre fiction, that’s the thing, I believe.
      I think you did great this year already and you did finish the books eventually. If I hadn’t been the host I would have given up La Storia it was so long. I actually thought it would have deserved to be no 3 on my best of list instead of the Silent Angel… It’s an excellent book but hard work.
      I’m very keen on reading Helen Dunmore. I’ve read The Siege two years ago and it was an amazing book.

  6. Great review, I what you describe of the structure of the book. Something I’d enjoy.

    I’m going to read it now and it’s been translated into French and that’s perfect because I know someone who will love it.

    PS: I put the Delerm on the shelf and I noticed I had Poor People. Does it mean it’s time for book inventory? After all, it’s inventory season.

    • Thanks, Emma, I hope you will like it. I didn’t expect it to be this good after I was less than impressed with the movie. I watched it again nd now I know my biggest problem is the cast. How can you make such an American movie and not one of the main actors is American? What happend? They all struggle with the accent, it’s awful. And Ada is dark haired, very dark hair and they pick Nicole Kidman?
      Btw, this is the first book in 10 years where I would have liked to read a translation. He mentions so many plants and I had no clue. I looked some of the up but, as Kevin mentions there are far over 40 terms.
      Don’t remind me of book inventory. I will stop buying books next year, or only buy in book shops. I noticed that 25% of the books I’ve read were from 2010/2011 and bought in book shops. I enjoy buying and reading brand new books.

      • Thanks for the warning, I’ll buy it in translation. The automatic kindle dictionary I have is all in English and it’s useless for plants, birds and animals in general. You can’t figure out what it is by reading the definition, you need a translation.

        As for the film cast: back to Gobseck, money rules the world. I hate when they pick a redhead for a dark haired woman, like Isabelle Huppert for Madame Bovary. Aren’t there enough actresses with the right hair colour?

        Who would be your cast?

        I’ll try to buy less books next year too. I’m not too interested in new books anyway, as my 2011 wrap-up post will show tomorrow.

        • I am interested in new books, especially when it comes to non-fiction like Cinderalla Ate My Daughter but also all the “engrossing” books and some other novels were from 2011/2010. Still 25% isn’t too many.
          My “dream cast”, I’m not sure. I’m not sure I know enough dark-haired young American actresses. Jennifer Connelly as Ada. Josh Hartnett as Inman. But Ruby is difficult.

  7. I’m right there with you, Caroline. As a reader, Cold Mountain is engaging with every word. It is everything a great piece of literature should be. I could read it again and again and still find new things to take away. It is no mistake that this novel won the National Book Award. As a writer, I’m in awe. I only wish my novel could be this good.

    Since you liked Cold Mountain so much you might want to read Frazier’s much anticipated second novel: Thirteen Moons. It is also a very “American” story, centered around a boy who is an orphan and raised by the Cherokee.

    • I’m glad you liked it as well. I was in awe too. It’s so well-written. This is a book I’m sure I will be re-reading. I think the movie prevented a lot of people from reading it. Not because it isn’t good but because it’s misleading. This book is so complex and rich, no movie could ever capture this.
      I was wondering whether any of his other books would be as good. Thanks for letting me now about the second novel. I hope I will soon be able to read your novel, Jacquelin. I’m looking forward to it.

  8. Yes, I remember how well crafted this book was. I read it soon after seeing the movie and I liked both in their own way. I almost want to read the book again after reading your review.

    • I’m glad you say this too. I was actually really puzzled when I read it because I was afraid the whole time that I might have chosen this years readalong dud with it. But not at all. I’ll read it again one day.
      I didn’t like the movie the first time but I liked it better now. Only the cast was so wrong. It’s a beautiful movie though. I’ll review it one of these days.

  9. wow…what an impressive review. I am curious since I found out that Cillian likes this book and that is why he plays as cameo in the movie version. I don’t know if you remember that I wanted to read The Road because Cillian also like that book, and finally read it after a friend told me about the story.

    I want to read this since I knew about Cillian but still waiting for someone to review it to be sure b4 buying it. I guess I will buy it as soon as I get home. Thank you Caroline

    • You are welcome, Novia, I hope you will like it. The writing is so beautiful.
      I just watched the movie again and will review it very soon. The first time I didn’t notice Cillian but I did this time. It is a very short role.
      I can’t remember whether you have seen the movie? Just in case, thee is far less action and or war in the book. It focuses a lot on the thoughts of Inman and Ada. I liked it because unlike Kevin, I liked Ada.

  10. I really wanted to take part in this discussion, but I just couldn’t fit the book in with all the holiday preparations. I enjoyed reading your review and think I really missed out. Will have to keep this book in mind. I will add your review to War Through the Generations.

    • Thanks Anna. You should read it sooner or later, it’s such a beautiful book. I think you would like ti. thanks for adding the review. I must admit I had a hard time finishing in time. Maybe it fts the one or the other of your challenges this year.

  11. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong January 31 2014: The Black Flower by Howard Bahr | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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