Friday, November 25, 2011

Cold Mountain - Book Review

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Vintage, 1997
Why? Cold Mountain has been on my TBR too long...I needed a contemporary classic for my revamped Comp II class and I was ready to see the movie.
What now?  This one will join the other keepers in the glass secretary

Golden Lines

Ada sat a minute and examined her portion.  The front teeth were yellow and long.  She was not accustomed to eating things with the teeth  still in them.  Stobrod watched her and said, That head'll twist right off, if it's bothering you.

That's just pain, she said.   It goes eventually.  And when it's gone, there's no lasting memory.  Not the worst of it, anyway.  It fades.  Our minds aren't made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss.  It's a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.

The woman looked as if she thought Inman spoke the greatest foolishness she had ever heard.  She pointed her pipe stem at him and said, You listen.   Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing.  But it's a common mistake nonetheless.

Don't act so proud about it, Ruby said.  In her view that's where the answer to this issue might lie.  Every little dogwood can't grow up right where it falls under the big dogwood.  Being rooted, they use the birds to move themselves around to more likely ground.  Birds eat berries, and the seeds come through whole and unmarred, ready to grow where dropped, already dressed with manure.  It was Ruby's opinion that if a person puzzled all this out over time, she might also find a lesson somewhere in it, for much of creation worked by such method and to such ends.

Such little mechanical portraits as Ada now held in her hand were not rare.  She had seen any number of them.  Nearly every family in the settlement with a son or husband off fighting had one, even if only cased in tin.  Displayed on mantel or table with the Bible, a taper, sprigs of galax, so that the effect was altarlike.  In sixty-one, any soldier with a dollar and seventy-five cents could have his aspect recorded in the form of ambrotype, tintype, calotype, or daguerreotype.  In those early days of war, Ada had found most of the ones she had seen comic.  Later she found them depressing in their depictions of men now dead.  One after the other, they had sat bristling with weaponry before the portraitist for the long exposure.  They held pistols crossed at their breasts or bayoneted rifles at their sides.  Shiny new bowie knives brandished for the camera.  Forage caps set at swank angles on their heads.  Farm boys more bright in their moods than on hog-killing days.  Their costumes were various.  Men wore every kind of thing to fight in, from clothes you might put on for plowing to actual uniforms, to garbs of such immense ridiculousness that even in peacetime someone might take a shot at you for wearing them.


The story of Ada, Inman and Ruby takes place in the middle of the Civil War.  Soldiers have been fighting long enough and violent enough to begin feeling as if they've had enough.  Their dreams of fighting the good fight and destroying the Federals in a quick championed war have literally been shot to hell.  Many of them simply walk away, only to be hunted by bands of horsemen who either return them to the war or shoot them for being traitors.  Inman is one of these soldiers. 

Four years before the story begins, Inman left home and Ada.  She is all he can think of as he crosses miles and miles of woods and water, hiding in caves, dodging the Federal horsemen and subsisting on only what he can scrounge up, buy or steal, and/or the goodness of strangers.

Ada herself left her home in Charleston to follow her minister father to Cold Mountain so that he could preach his progressive beliefs.  Her mother having died in childbirth, Ada has only her father to depend upon and to teach her how to live.  When Ada's father Monroe dies, Ada with only her Charleston societal knowhow,  is left to fend for herself in the unforgiving mountains.  Having no one and nowhere to turn, Ada decides to somehow climb out of her grief and find a way to live.

Ruby is the holder of Ada's light.  

Ruby has grown up in Cold Mountain without her mother as well and a drunk for a father.  She learned from a very early age how to fend for herself and how to make ends meet.  She approaches Ada after one of the mountain people mentions that Ada might need some help.  Ruby offers Ada help in return for a fair trade and equal treatment.  Ada and Ruby begin an unlikely reciprocal friendship that will stand the test of time.

What I Liked

Ruby was my favorite character.   She was so nonsensical and realistic about EVERYTHING.  Almost as if she still viewed the world as a intelligent as she was, she had no room nor any patience for "silly stuff."  She learned to set her mind to nature and to work within the natural order of things rather than against them.  She didn't see her intelligence as anything special was just a part of life.

I loved Frazier's detail and descriptions.  While this kind of description may get in some people's way, I can see the mountains, feel the crunch of the leaves under my feet, "hear" snow falling, feel the warmth of a hot fire and also the freezing cold of a dark Winter night.  The reader is a part of the character's journeys; Frazier takes you with them and you feel as if you are walking through the woods in in the world they could keep up with where they were in those woods is beyond me...but Frazier has them point out markers and look to the skies and read the natural signs for times and seasonal changes.  

The humor...embedded among the hardships, sadness, stomach turning scenes is a natural and sometimes sarcastic humor.  I say "natural" because none of the characters are trying to be funny...they are simply "calling a spade a spade" which is so ridiculous at times that it's funny.  I think the humor helps the reader get through the story and all it's sadness, but also I think humor probably was how these folks actually made it through every single day of their immensely hard lives.

What I Didn't Like 

If I say I didn't care all that much for Inman, is anybody going to get mad at me??  I found it a little unrealistic that these two people realized just how much they loved each other over the four years Inman was gone...when they really hardly knew each other when he left?  I'm not saying that I don't think they belonged together; I'm just saying that it was more of a practical that probably would have worked well...but I didn't see them "falling in love" romantically before Inman left.

Stodbrod...what father leaves his toddler behind to fend for herself???  I don't even care if he kept himself drunk to lessen the pain of losing his wife; he had a child from that wife to take care of...and he chose not to.  

Monroe...another weak male father character...this one chooses to grieve for his wife in a different holding onto the life they would have had and not letting his daughter grow up.  Even with signs of critical illness, he did nothing to prepare his daughter for the world ahead of her.

Although there is a good bit of dialogue in this novel, there are no quotation marks.  There were times when I had to back up and re-read to make sure what I was reading was what someone said.  I'm interested to find out if there was some particular reason Frazier chose not to use quotation marks or if it is just a quirk of his.

My Overall Response

I'm so glad I read this...I had so many people tell me I wouldn't like the ending...but I did.  Actually, it's a hard ending to say I "liked"....but it made sense to me.  Obviously I won't say anything here to spoil it for anyone, but frankly a happily ever after ending would not have made any sense at all for this novel.  The entire novel is about life during the Civil War and its hardships.  As I type the word "hardships," it doesn't even seem to cover it.  This ain't Cinderella, people.

I enjoyed reading this book along with my students...and I'll continue choosing contemporary classic novels for next semester's classes.  We have one more discussion next Wednesday, but I finished the book last night...I couldn't stand it...I had to get to the end.  Links for Discussion #1 and Discussion #2 can be found here and here.


Anyone who enjoys the Civil War time period and/or books that deal with a more realistic rather than romantic notion of the war will like this one...the details are so vivid that there were times I grimaced or closed my eyes as if I could shut out the visions in my mind.  
Anyone who enjoys the North Carolina mountains, the natural surroundings, survival stories and/or stories of starting over, and people with grit will also like this one.


  1. I bought this book from a used book store three years ago and still have not read it. I heard so many people say it was tough to get through. I haven't seen the movie either. I smell a project in the making. (BTW, I like this format for a review!)

  2. I like your review! I have seen most of this movie and thought it was dark and difficult to watch at times but like you say it's the Civil War. Your wonderful review has me wanting to read the book.

  3. I loved this book. I didn't think I did while I was reading it, but like the warm glow of a hot toddy on a cold night, it worked its way through me.

    I don't think Inman and Ada were actually in love, I think so much had been pulled out from under them that to hold onto those things they clung to the thought of one another. their love is surrogate stability and the ending just proves it. :) just my take on it though.

    Ruby was my favorite toooooo!

  4. I have yet to read this book, though I have had it in my hands in the library on several occasions. I'm wondering now that you've read it if you think Rene Zellweger and Nicole Kidman were good casting choices? (I haven't seen the movie either).

  5. Thanks,'s hard to find a book review format that feels right to the writer and is also an easy read for the reader. I can see why someone might have difficulty getting through parts...

    Beth, I haven't seen the movie but I can only imagine the drama portrayed on screen...bc there was plenty of heart wrenching places in the book where my imagination was enough to make me ache for these characters.

    Laura, I think you're right...I don't think they loved each other. I've read other books that describe Americans who lived through the Civil was never the same...for any of them.

    BookGirl, I'm going to try and hold out on seeing the movie until my students and I have our final book discussion this Wednesday...then I'll be right on top of it. I'm anxious to see Hollywood's version of these characters too...hopefully by next Monday, I'll be able to discuss it in my Monday Movie post :)