In his debut book, 1997's Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier cunningly combined regional history with formulaic romance to create a tame but persuasive myth of Americana. No doubt, the novel became a massive book-club bestseller not for its allusions to The Odyssey but for its tragic love story, unrequited but for a single night, between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman -- I mean, Inman and Ada. Frazier's follow-up, Thirteen Moons, doesn't quite deserve the critical scalping it has received, but after scaling Mountain's summit, the author definitely descends into a sophomore slump.
Reminiscent of "honorary-Indian" stories such as Little Big Man or Dances With Wolves, Thirteen Moons presents the century-straddling life of Will Cooper, a fictionalized version of William Holland Thomas, Confederate officer and "white chief" of the Cherokee. Early in the book, orphaned Will becomes contractually bound to a remote, deserted trading post at the frontier of Cherokee Nation in the Southern Appalachians.
Unquestionably, Frazier has skill as a campfire-style storyteller, and Thirteen Moons spins entrancing yarns involving hunts, courtships and even a pistol duel. Two disparate Cherokee leaders cast the biggest shadows across the book. Violent, grasping Featherstone combines a warrior ethos with the material aspirations of the white, landed gentry. Witty, lovelorn Bear clings to the old ways and enlists Will in his plan to sustain a small Cherokee settlement in the face of the annihilating hostility of white civilization.
Thirteen Moons recounts the Trail of Tears with almost painfully close attention to detail, and an especially superb piece of writing shadows an elderly Cherokee fugitive's route through increasingly inhospitable climes. Frazier's best prose all but envelops the reader in the tactile sensations of the wilderness.
Frazier falters in his attempt to combine an angry reading of American history with another sweeping saga. Here, the star-crossed lovers, Will and part-Cherokee heiress Claire, enjoy a robust sexual relationship in their youth, in sharp contrast to their Cold Mountain distant counterparts. They run up against a few obstacles, such as a law against white people marrying anyone with Indian blood, but their separation feels contrived and diminishes our respect for the characters. We never feel that they were timeless lovers, only that they had some great sex.
As Will looks back on the unwelcome changes across the 19th century, Thirteen Moons encumbers itself with pretentious ruminations, beginning with the opening line, "There is no scatheless rapture." Perhaps the stilted narration reflects some ambivalence the writer feels toward his protagonist. For all of Will's efforts on behalf of the Cherokee and his professions of love for Claire, there's something empty and mercantile in his soul. He offhandedly mentions that he once held slaves, but treats it like a regrettable youthful indiscretion.
Perhaps Frazier implies that any white person lacks a certain innocence and authenticity viewed alongside the maltreated Native Americans. For whatever reason, Thirteen Moons' narrator frequently brings out the worst in the writer.
– Curt Holman
Charles Frazier reading and signing. Mon., Oct. 23, 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 2952 Cobb Pkwy. 770-953-0966. Book: $26.95, Random House, 422 pages.
ON AGATE HILL
Lee Smith's latest novel, On Agate Hill, starts off on a seemingly familiar narrative arc ripped straight out of Dickens or Bronte. Molly Petree is a plucky little orphan growing up in the aftermath of the Civil War, living under the care of her kind but broken uncle on his decaying plantation in the mountains of North Carolina. Despite her misfortunes, she is spirited and swells with grand ambitions. Then a mysterious benefactor enters her life -- a brooding man of the world accompanied at all times by a brown-skinned servant of indeterminate but clearly exotic origins -- and Molly finds herself at an elite girls boarding school, a star student soon wooed by multiple wealthy suitors. Some lesson regarding faith, endurance and hard work must lie ahead.
But Molly won't see the story through to its edifying ending. Her expectations are great, but they are not of a quality of which those around her approve. On playing dolls with her sickly best friend, she writes in her diary, "For I do not want a husband myself nor a big clawfoot chest full of silver, I want a demon lover and so does [her doll] Margaret, this is her secret desire." Then later, "Do I want to be taken off by a demon lover... Or do I want to BE one...?"
She has been what she calls a "ghost girl," barely there in a house where too many have died. She is exhorted to be an angel, a pure, long-suffering orphan awaiting her reward in the afterlife. She rejects them both. "I want to be a real girl and live as hard as I can in this world. ... I want to live so hard and love so much I will use myself all the way up like a candle, it seems to me this is the point of it all, not Heaven."
Molly insists on a hard-lived life and she gets it, with more than her measure of suffering and loss. She finds her demon lover, but demons aren't the stuff of settling down for happily ever after. Neither is Molly. She lives her life unedited, fully expressed, whole and flaming and electric.
Smith tells Molly's story through diary entries, letters, court documents and other artifacts. These layers of removal prevent us from knowing Molly fully or surely. Even a wild girl keeps some secrets. But Smith's presentation of the pieces offers a wicked thrill and inspiration to any wild child ready to give up on happy endings in exchange for a life fully lived.
– Thomas Bell
For an interview with Smith, click here.
Lee Smith reading and signing. Mon. Oct. 23, 7:15 p.m. Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. www.georgiacenterforthebook.org. 404-370-8450. Book: $24.95. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 365 pages.
REDEMPTION: THE LAST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR
Nicholas Lemann relies on painstaking research and a compelling protagonist to fashion a history lesson in Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. In the process, Lemann, dean of Columbia University's journalism school and a New Yorker staff writer, provides a kind of myth-breaking prequel to his award-winning 1991 book, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.
Unlike such prodigious works as The Promised Land and The Big Test, the New Orleans native employs what he calls "microcosmic history" by focusing on the 1875 statewide elections of Mississippi as the beginning of the end of Reconstruction. In doing so, he fixes his gaze, as both a journalist and a historian, on the broad misperception that Reconstruction was a failure basically because of the federal government's carpet-bagging occupation. (Many historians dubbed Southerners as being "redeemed" by Reconstruction's end.)
Lemann's research uncovers another culprit: a meticulously orchestrated campaign of violent terror against the freed slaves and their Republican supporters.
It is here that Lemann uncovers the most ironic aspect of Reconstruction. By continually stoking fears of a (never materialized) "Negro uprising," terrorist groups such as the White Line went on brutal rampages. Taking their cue from Democratic political leaders, they disrupted peaceful Republican rallies, picked fights and even tracked down and slaughtered hundreds of innocents.
Exploiting the fear of terror led to the terrorizing of those who never posed a threat in the first place.
At the heart of the story is Mississippi's Republican governor, Adelbert Ames, a social- and political-climbing Civil War hero. Ames' own hubris is sobered by what sometimes feels like the conversion of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler. Lemann often relies on love letters sent between Ames and his socially prominent wife, Blanche, to show how the former general comes to grasp the complexity of the white Southerners' insurrection. Along the way he offers Ames in all his complexity: war hero, carpetbagger, politician, idealist, fatalist and cynic.
Countless stories of violence and obfuscation convince Ames well before the rest of his Northern cohorts that the Civil War, Appomattox aside, never ended -- and in some ways that the war to free the slaves may yet be lost.
Hindered by President Ulysses S. Grant's refusal to send in federal troops, Ames was faced with some hard truths that tested his formidable military (and nascent political) skills.
"For Ames and the Republicans," Lemann writes, "the concern wasn't so much that a black militia would be slaughtered, though it probably would be, as that its slaughter would set off a wider regional conflagration -- and perhaps worse, renewed civil war."
Lemann writes in a contemporary tone, as he states in the forward, in an attempt to place the reader in Ames' time. The risk pays off to some degree (though at least one African-American critic, noting the use of the word "Negro," has begged to differ.)
A sense of foreboding hangs over Redemption. As the terror mounts, the reader can anticipate the story's tragic conclusion. But at least there's some consolation in seeing how Lemann deconstructs the Reconstruction era by offering one reason for how it failed.
– David Lee Simmons
Nicholas Lemann reading and signing. Mon., Oct. 30, 7:15 p.m. Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. www.georgiacenterforthebook.org. 404-370-8450. Book: $24. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux. 257 pages.
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