Magazine article The Spectator

Love Being in the State He's In

Magazine article The Spectator

Love Being in the State He's In

Article excerpt

COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier Sceptre, 6.99, pp. 438

For all the glamour of California, the grandeur of Montana and the glitz of Hawaii, I would rate North Carolina as the most attractive of America's 50 states. It wins not just for its pine-covered sandhills and rolling Blue Ridge mountains, but for the still-surviving character of its mountain inhabitants -- large-hearted and narrow-minded - the last holdouts of those tobacco-chewing, Bible-reading, gun-toting, whisky-guzzling homesteaders whose stiff-necked independence became America's hallmark.

Thus, in setting his Civil War novel in such surroundings, Charles Frazier begins with one great advantage and sensibly he makes the most of it. The theme of Cold Mountain, a soldier from the wars returning, is older than literature itself, and the journey of the wounded Inman making his way back to his home and his sweetheart, Ada Monroe, belongs to a story-telling tradition that began with The Odyssey. But it was Frazier's extraordinary evocation of the land and people that made his book the most lauded first novel in recent time on its publication last year.

Here, for example, is his miniature of Esco Swanger, an Appalachian farmer:

He was bent over trying to cotter a cartwheel with a peg he had whittled from a locust branch, driving it in with a hand sledge. As Ada walked to him from the road, he stood and set down the sledge and leaned forward against the cart, gripping the topboard two-fisted. There appeared to be no great odds between the color and hardness of his hands and the boards. He had sweated through his shirt, and as Ada drew near, she drew in his smell, which was that of wet pottery. Esco was tall and thin with a tiny head and a great shock of dry, grey hair which roached up to a point like the crest on a titmouse. He welcomed the excuse to quit working and walked Ada to the house, passing through the fence gate into the yard. Esco had used the fence for hitching rack, and the pointed tops of the palings had been cribbed away to splintered nubs by bored horses.

These exact, story-teller's word-pictures flow into one another so seamlessly and seductively that it is almost impossible not to believe in the 19th-century landscape which they create. …

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