Kindle Surprise: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

By Ken Thomas ( (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ken Thomas ( (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“She fit her head under his chin, and he could feel her weight settle into him. He held her tight and words spilled out of him without prior composition. And this time he made no effort to clamp them off. He told her about the first time he had looked on the back of her neck as she sat in the church pew. Of the feeling that had never let go of him since. He talked to her of the great waste of years between then and now. A long time gone. And it was pointless, he said, to think how those years could have been put to better use, for he could hardly have put them to worse.”

This is the sort of find which makes the Kindle Surprise project worthwhile. Because it’s a very enjoyable book, that I would almost certainly never have read if it hadn’t been part of the package. The movie version, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (not to mention, Jax from Sons of Anarchy!) also managed to escape my eyeballs: I think my subconscious probably dismissed it, based on the title and Western location, as some kind of sequel to Brokeback Mountain. Or worse, The Asylum mockbuster version, likely starring Casper Van Dien. Either way: nein, danke.

Instead, it’s a Civil War story, set towards the end of that horrendous conflict. Inman, a soldier on the Confederate side, was wounded in battle, but realizes during his convalescence, that when he’s well, he’ll simply be shipped back into the conflict, and may not be as lucky next time. So he walks out of the hospital, and begins the 250-mile trek back to his home near the titular peak. The other half of the novel is about Ada, a young woman for whom Inman carries a largely undisclosed torch. She has been thrown on her own talents, after the sudden death of her preacher father, and finds her abilities short of what’s necessary.

The chapters alternate between the main protagonists: Inman, making his way across North Carolina and encountering both the good and bad of humanity, while Ada struggles with the problems of everyday lifer, helped by Ruby, a homeless woman to whom she gives shelter [In my imagination, Ruby was black; given she’s played in the movie by Renée Zellweger, I guess not…]. Of the two, I found Inman’s story more compelling, largely because there’s much more significant threat to him, with danger lurking around almost every turn, especially since he’s basically a deserter. Ada meanders round her farm with her sketch-pad, vaguely concerned about running out of food. It’s only after Ruby shows up – and, in particular, when her no-good father Stobrod arrives in tow – that any kind of urgency comes to play here.

But even when the pace is more languid than urgent, Frazier has a wonderfully descriptive tone, capable of capturing both the rural setting and its inhabitants perfectly. Nor does he soft-pedal the hell of war: some of the traumatic events described by Inman seem too horrific to be real, yet they appear based on real battles. For example, the Battle of the Crater saw Union forces dig a 500-ft long tunnel under enemy lines, pack it with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, and blow it up; the resulting hollow can still be seen today. You can’t make that kind of shit up. The impending threat of violence looms large, and you just don’t know until the very last page whether the lovers get to live happily ever after, or are doomed to be just another casualty of war. I found myself caring about the outcome, in a way few novels manage; some works by Thomas Hardy, and I’m hard pressed to think of many others, since I ran weeping to my mother as a seven-year-old, after Boxer died in Animal Farm.

It is kinda odd to have a love story, where the two protagonists don’t share a scene, except in flashbacks, until the last ten percent of the novel. However, it doesn’t negatively impact the emotional content; indeed, it perhaps heightens the sense of relief felt by the reader, when they are finally together, albeit under some pretty harrowing circumstances. Yet, just when you think they’re safe, there’s one final peril to be faced. It did feel like a long read, and there were times when I seemed to be making no progress at all. Yet unlike some, it was never a chore, and I’m now certainly going to have to see the movie version, and find out how it compares to the source material.

“For you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you were. All your grief hasn’t changed a thing. What you have lost will not be returned to you. It will always be lost. You’re only left with your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not.”