Monday, October 23, 2023

the last book I read

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

War - war is stupid; and people are stupid. Just a few of the thoughts that pass through the mind of Inman (no, not that one), a wounded Confederate soldier, as he recuperates in a hospital in North Carolina during the American Civil War. Having witnessed unimaginable horrors while fighting for a cause he never particularly believed in, and narrowly avoiding death after being shot in the neck, he decides that he's not especially happy about being wheeled straight back into the arena of combat once his wounds have healed, the only alternative being a slow and malodorous death from some form of gangrenous infection like some of his ward-mates.

So, all in all, Inman deems it preferable to take up his meagre pack of possessions, pop his boots on and make a sharp exit from the hospital to trek back across the state to his former home and Ada Monroe, the woman he left there when the war started.

Aaaaand CUE wibbly-wobbly dissolve to Ada, back home on her farm in another part of North Carolina, grappling with the inconvenient recent death of her father, a religious minister, and the realisation that he has kept her in such a sheltered state of arrested development that she has no idea how to begin running the place in his absence. Fortunately her neighbours take pity on her and send her Ruby, a young woman looking for a home who also happens to be exceptionally knowledgeable about farming and various other practical matters, fiercely independent and absolutely not prepared to have Ada sit around on the verandah drinking mint juleps and reading poetry while she does all the work. Ruby takes charge of matters in a fairly terrifying manner and soon Ada is helping to plough fields, milk cows, sow various crops and wring the neck of the occasional chicken.

Lest that start to resemble some North Carolina version of The Good Life we return to Inman, not having such a good time of it: constantly aware of needing to keep a low profile to avoid attracting the attention of the Confederate Home Guard, he is reluctant to take on any travelling companions, and as soon as he acquires one, loud-mouthed preacher Veasey, they make an ill-advised stop at a stranger's house and are immediately betrayed and taken captive. Their captors pretty soon realise that dragging a string of tethered, demoralised and exhausted men around is a monumental pain in the neck and decide instead to just dig a ditch and shoot the lot of them. Thanks to Veasey, who inadvertently slows down and diverts a bullet so that it only catches him a glancing blow, Inman survives to continue his journey.

Not without further incident, though: firstly Inman comes across a hermit woman living in a caravan in the woods who feeds him, tends to his neck wound and sends him on his way, and then later he receives further kindness from a young woman, Sara, a war widow with a baby, kindness he repays by helping her with some tasks around the house like wood-chopping and chicken-strangling. Fair exchange, he thinks, but then the situation quickly becomes complicated when some Union soldiers arrive, terrorise her and the baby and make off with all her livestock. Inman could of course just head off up the road at this point but he feels obliged to pursue the men, dispense some brutal hot lead-y justice and return Sara's rightful possessions to her, things that could make the difference between surviving the winter and not.

Meanwhile Ada and Ruby have been continuing to lick the farm into shape, interrupted only by the arrival of two wandering minstrels from off the nearby mountain, the older of whom, called Stobrod, turns out to be Ruby's father, a pretty useless absent parent when Ruby was growing up but now apparently partly mellowed by age. Ruby is warily tolerant of their occasional appearances but draws the line at allowing them to stay at the farm, and it is on one of their weary re-ascents of the mountain's lower slopes that they encounter a patrol and are summarily put up against a poplar tree and shot. Ada and Ruby trek up the mountain to see what has happened, find Stobrod's companion dead and Stobrod himself not quite dead and take him to a nearby ruined village to recuperate. It is while they are here, in the middle of a snowstorm, that Inman finally returns, and, after a brief Mexican stand-off where neither recognises the other, he and Ada are reunited. Ada reassures Ruby, who is a bit spiky about the whole situation, that this doesn't mean she'll be banished from the farm, and she and Inman find a secluded cabin to do some getting reacquainted, by which I mean fucking.

So all's well that ends well, then? Weeeeeell, not quite, as the patrol that attempted to dispatch Stobrod returns after Ada and Ruby have gone ahead to the farm and Inman has to try and make sure that they don't follow them. Clearly this is going to involve less persuasion via nuanced argument and more HOT LEAD, and who knows who's going to catch a bullet.

Cold Mountain is probably more famous these days for its 2003 film adaptation. I've never seen it, but from what clips I've seen RenĂ©e Zellweger was pretty good value for her Oscar for playing Ruby, and Jude Law is a bit too pretty for Inman. 

Pretty clearly we're meant to bring to mind The Odyssey while reading this, but the obvious trajectory of the story arc towards Inman and Ada being reunited (albeit, as it turns out, fairly briefly) at the end kills a bit of the suspense during Inman's travels in particular. While it's evident that various indignities and hardships will be visited on him, and any of the people he meets along the way could be arbitrarily killed, he will make it back to Cold Mountain to be reunited with Ada. Same goes for Ada, who spends most of the novel getting to grips with farming in company with the endlessly resourceful and inexhaustible Ruby - you would think that word might get around that two women are running a large and valuable farm on their own and that someone might choose to, you know, pay them a visit, but they are left pretty well alone.

Those nitpicks aside it's a thoroughly entertaining read, and Inman, Ada and Ruby are engaging central characters. In terms of novels taking the American Civil War as their central subject it's certainly more grittily adjacent to the grime and gore and hardship than the other recent novel on this list, Days Without End.

Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997, other winners featured here include The Wapshot Chronicle, The Moviegoer, The Shipping News, The Corrections and The Underground Railroad.

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