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Books: 1860 or 1960?

Books | The similarities make Cold Mountain a bestselling novel

Issue: "Global Warming," Nov. 29, 1997

Now here's an oddity--a literary novel set in the previous century that has topped the bestseller lists for months. What's going on here? Cold Mountain is a powerful and well-written story. The hero is a Confederate soldier named Inman who is wounded in battle. Thinking things over while in the hospital, he decides he's had enough of war and lights out for home in the North Carolina mountains. Waiting there at the foot of Cold Mountain is his true love, Ada Monroe, an ex-Charleston debutante now struggling to survive on a farm left to her by her minister father after his death. The strength of Charles Frazier's writing is in his descriptions: "Cold Mountain was a mottle of color rising behind the house. It changed day by day, and if you watched closely you could follow the color as it overtook the green and came down the mountain and spread into the cove like a wave breaking over you slowly." Such passages take you out of your chair and into the Appalachians. Also, the "what-next" reader impulse is strong throughout the book as Inman goes from one harrowing episode to another trying to get back to Ada, while she, with help from her friend, the tough mountain girl Ruby, tries to learn how to work the farm. You struggle with them; you hope they make it. Let the Christian reader take note, there are some scenes that will give the story an R rating when it is filmed. The story is set in an ugly time, and sometimes the people in it do ugly things. Looking deeper, though, there are some cultural issues in this book the Christian reader should also note, issues that help explain the book's enormous and unexpected popularity. On one level, Cold Mountain is a 20th-century existential novel. Mr. Frazier makes it very clear through his characters that he believes war is senseless: "Inman sat silent for a minute, thinking that every man that died in that war on either side might just as soon have put a pistol against the soft of his palate and blown out the back of his head for all the meaning it had." The other moral consistent throughout the book is the author's belief that religion is meaningless: "'Listen to me, Laura,' [Inman] said. 'That preacher does not speak for God. No man does.... He means you no good. Set your mind on it.'" The most useless people in the book are the Christians: The two preachers, Monroe and Veasey, have no practical skills whatsoever. So in this story, there is no honor on earth and no reward in heaven. Hemingway would approve. On another level, Cold Mountain is a 19th-century romantic novel. When Rev. Monroe is bringing Ada up to the mountains, every time he sees a new vista he gushes Wordsworth. Cherokee spirituality is approved, and nature is venerated as a place of restoration: "Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in [Inman's] mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather.... So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere." Thus Inman's odyssey back to Cold Mountain is a secular parable of a man's search to find his lost soul. There is redemption, but it is a shabby imitation of the real thing. Putting these two ideas together, we see that modernist existentialism converged with the revival of romanticism in American culture in the 1960s. In those days, anti-war, anti-religion sentiment combined with tribal nature worship. Although Cold Mountain is set in the 1860s, its authorial point-of-view comes right out of the 1960s. We can interpret Inman as the burned-out Vietnam War vet, but he is also the heroic draft dodger who runs away. Ada is the romantic flower child, always writing and drawing in her notebooks. Ruby is the natural woman who knows how to live off the land, and in the end they all end up back on the farm with a passel of barefoot illegitimate children dancing around the fire while an old man plays the fiddle. There are enough old hippies, burned-out existentialists, and aficionados of good prose to make Cold Mountain a bestseller.

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