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.