Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 30.
- Review Date: 2006-08-28
- Reviewer: Staff
When Frazier's debut Cold Mountain blossomed into a National Book Award–winning bestseller with four million copies in print, expectations for the follow-up rose almost immediately. A decade later, the good news is that Frazier's storytelling prowess doesn't falter in this sophomore effort, a bountiful literary panorama again set primarily in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains. The story takes place mostly before the Civil War this time, and it is epic in scope. With pristine prose that's often wry, Frazier brings a rough-and-tumble pioneer past magnificently to life, indicts America with painful bluntness for the betrayal of its native people and recounts a romance rife with sadness.In a departure from Cold Mountain's Inman, Will Cooper narrates his own story in retrospect, beginning with his days as an orphaned, literate "bound boy" who is dispatched to run a musty trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation. Nearly nine mesmerizing decades later, Will is an eccentric elder of great accomplishments and gargantuan failures, perched cantankerously on his front porch taking potshots at passenger trains rumbling across his property (he owns "quite a few" shares of the railroad). Over the years, Will—modeled very loosely, Frazier acknowledges, on real-life frontiersman William Holland Thomas—becomes a prosperous merchant, a self-taught lawyer and a state senator; he's adopted by a Cherokee elder and later leads the clan as a white Indian chief; he bears terrible witness to the 1838–1839 Trail of Tears; a quarter-century later, he goes to battle for the Confederacy as a self-anointed colonel, leading a mostly Indian force with a "legion of lawyers and bookkeepers and shop clerks" as officers; as time passes, his life intersects with such figures as Davy Crockett, Sen. John C. Calhoun and President Andrew Jackson.After the Civil War, Will fritters away a fortune through wanderlust, neglect and unquenched longing for his one true love, Claire, a girl he won in a card game when they were both 12, wooed for two erotic summers in his teen years and found again several decades later. In the novel's wistful coda, recalling Claire's voice inflicts "flesh wounds of memory, painful but inconclusive"—a voice that an uncertain old Will hears in the static hiss when he answers his newfangled phone in the book's opening pages. The history that Frazier hauntingly unwinds through Will is as melodic as it is melancholy, but the sublime love story is the narrative's true heart. (Oct. 3)
Frazier's remembrance of things past
Meet Will Cooper, a singular fellow whose life began in early 19th-century America. He was indentured as a 12-year-old orphan to work at an isolated trading post in the southern Appalachians, where a land-hungry America was fast encroaching upon the world of the Cherokees. Throughout his life, Willa voracious reader especially fond of tales of chivalryamassed adventures that would have impressed even Sir Thomas Malory and Sir Walter Scott. In fact, the indefatigable Will became famous as "a senator and a colonel in the War. And, most romantically, white chief of the Indians."
Now in his 90s, Will knows that he is "leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel." And with time running out, Will understands memory as now being "about the only intoxicant left" in his long and remarkable life. Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier's powerful, lyrical second novel (after the National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain), is an extended dramatic monologue in which Will remembers the saga of his life.
As we immerse ourselves in Frazier's mellifluous prose, we meetamong dozens of fascinating charactersthe man known as Bear, Will's adoptive father and the loquacious chief of the Cherokees, a "damaged people living in a broken worldlike everybody else." We also meet Claire, the provocative, elusive adolescent beauty who would forever be the unattainable Guinevere to Will's devoted Lancelot.
Reading Thirteen Moons is an intoxicating experience in which the author invites us to take a different view of America's transition from the romantic 19th century to the modern 20th century. This is not an elegiac, Proustian remembrance of the past. Instead, we must uncomfortably acknowledge the disturbing ways in which so-called progress has forever altered important parts of the American cultural landscape. This is 21st-century literary fiction at its very best.
Tim Davis is a literature instructor at the University of West Florida.