Charles Frazier uses reverse psychology to great advantage in his debut novel, "Cold Mountain," a Civil War saga with blood on its bayonets and romance in its gentle soul. The author takes some creative risks by reshaping the true battle tales of his great-great-grandfather into an epic story that accumulates power and purpose with each turn of the page.
Our hero, Inman, much like the sensitive lead character in Stephen Crane's classic war novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," is sickened by the wanton waste of young lives on the battlefield and torn between the traditional conflict of valor and cowardice. In the field hospital, the injured Confederate private witnesses the brutality of both sides in the most bloody of American armed struggles, the War Between the States. Bodies stack up like lumber outside his window as the victorious soldiers, following their rout of Federal troops, strip the corpses of all valuables while their superior officers look the other way. Capturing a horrific moment in the carnage, Frazier chillingly describes how a calm Southern soldier finishes off the enemy's wounded with a well-placed blow of a hammer to the head.
Emotionally shaken, Inman realizes that he will return to the front and possible death as soon as he is well. He watches men on both sides ordered to charge into lethal barrages of gunfire and cannon shot, only to fall after a few precious steps. The author makes some disturbing cultural and social commentary as Inman considers the war philosophy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who saw battle as "a sacred act outranked only by prayer and Bible reading." The commander also felt armed conflict was "an instrument for clarifying God's obscure will," a view not shared by the youthful soldier who dons new clothes and decides to reclaim his old life regardless of the consequences.
So the eventful journey back to his heartthrob, Ada, begins. At this point in the book, Frazier takes us into the life and mind of Ada, a young girl stunned by the sudden death of her consumptive father. Despite the man's standing in the community as a preacher, no one comes forward to help her until another fatherless young woman, Ruby, appears. Together they team up to put her farm back into operation, trading and bartering for the goods and services they need. It is the emotional bond between these two sturdy souls and their startling evolution as characters which lift this novel above and beyond the usual offerings in historical fiction.
Wonderfully depicted passages of nature and wildlife enhance the fleeting periods of calm which interrupt the manic scenes of greed and bloodlust that befall Inman on his odyssey. He is jumped by scalawags, almost conned by a preacher who holds a drugged teenager hostage for his own pleasure, and later forced to marry a witless girl before being led away by vigilantes to be shot as a deserter. But Inman survives all of these nonstop perils to get back to Ada, the woman he loves, a free spirit completely changed from the innocent maiden he knew before his departure. Their reunion is superbly underplayed, tender yet real.
It is in the concluding scenes of "Cold Mountain" that Frazier ties up the action with a handful of wise observations about what life could have been like in that dark time in American history. Lyrical and magnificent in its narrative power, this is one of the most promising literary debuts in some time. And we truly are glad that Charles Frazier remembered all those marvelous Civil War yarns his great-great-granddaddy passed along.
Reviewed by Robert Fleming.