Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cold Mountain with My Students - The Final Discussion

I was about 5 minutes late for our final discussion of Cold Mountain, and by the time I arrived, my students had already discussed the book and come to a consensus that they didn't like it.

I wasn't surprised.

I asked them if they had to come up with one reason why they didn't like this book, what would it be.
Every single one of them said their #1 problem with the book was the end.
Their #2 problem with the book is the long descriptive paragraphs about everything, especially the mountain terrain, the foliage, the sky, the stars, etc.

The rest of our discussion was focused on these two complaints.

**It will be difficult for me to discuss the end without spoilers, but I'm gonna give it my best shot.**

My class is comprised of 12 traditional aged college students, and only 2 of them are male; the bottom line is they wanted a fairy tale ending.  They were mad at Frazier for putting Inman through all that he went through for essentially what they saw as nothing.
And, when I say mad, I mean mad.
I stayed out of the discussion for about 30 minutes and just let them trash the author.  Then, I asked them to discuss what they knew about the Civil War.  That didn't take very long.  We discussed together aspects of the Civil War embedded in the novel such as faulty expectations, what it really means to "win" a war, lives lost,  those left behind, life afterwards, etc.  
Together from this discussion we concluded: 
War is not a football game with obvious winners and losers.
War hurts everybody.
No one was the same after the war that was supposed to last a few months lasted years and years.   Families were destroyed, lands lost, fortunes wasted, and the United States was changed forever.
We discussed details covered in the novel that substantiate these concepts.  

The climate of our classroom was very different at that point...
Could it be possible that Frazier was illustrating those very points with his ending?  Would it have made any sense at all for Inman and  Ada to walk off in the sunset in the end? 

Does it mean that their immediate response to the novel was wrong?
Heavens no.
We all begin with a personal response.  What I try to get my students to do is push past that personal response and dig into the text.  Step outside their comfort zone and really analyze what's happening...based on the TEXT, not just their emotions.  It takes a lot of practice to read a text this way.

Most of them have never been in the mountains of North Carolina...I have.  Frazier's descriptions are spot-on.  Here to me was an example of how prior knowledge affects the way a person reads a text.  No matter how pretty the words are, if you've never seen what's being described, or even if you've seen it but not really "looked at it," the description won't mean anything to the reader except as a bunch of words that get in your way.

Our students in America don't read enough.  And, when they do read, it's in an English classroom, and much of the time there, American students are reading (or SparkNoting) age old classics that they hate (Wuthering Heights) or beautiful classics that they are nowhere near ready to really comprehend due to a lack of life experience (The Awakening).  Imagine what we could do with texts like Frazier's in a history classroom...or science classroom...along with the English classroom?  What about in a political science or government class?  The possibilities are endless for promoting engaging discussion with real life examples instead of just reading the chapters of a textbook and answering the questions in the back, with a multiple choice test of facts rounding out the experience.  

For our last class meeting tomorrow, we will be discussing the movie as compared/contrasted to the book.  I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. This is the kind of discussion I LOOOOOVE with a class. I am always amused by the first "author bashing" stage, but it's so satisfying to see them tease out meaning and "get" something the author might've been trying to accomplish.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Oh, I admit that I had the same initial reaction as your students! But I came away loving it, even if my own desire for a fairy tale ending was left in tatters.

    My rather short review is here.

    I'll come back and learn how your class compared and contrasted.

  3. Wow - I'd like to sit in your classroom. I agree that kids nowadays don't read enough and it's not just reading in general - but they don't the classics or the high quality of the authors (and their writing) prior to the early 1900's.

    One thing I've noticed since I started my blog is the quality of the writing from today is so very different from the writing of the 1700's to early 1900. The authors used more description when writing, they built up the story to a climax instead of opening up the book with a bang and running full tilt through 200 pages of action.

    Great post!

    Tina 'thebooklady'