The author of Cold Mountain serves up a dish of lard-fried cornmeal mush
Thirteen Moons: A Novel. By Charles Frazier. Random House 422 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washingon Post that Thirteen Moons is “even longer and even duller than Cold Mountain.” That about sums up this dish of lard-fried cornmeal mush, served up against the backdrop of the lush Appalachian wilderness in the 19th century.
Charles Frazier found much of the inspiration for this novel in the life of Willam Holland Thomas (1803–1893), a remarkable lawyer and Indian rights advocate who organized two companies of Cherokee to fight for the Confederacy. So he had rich material to tap for what is essentially a fictionalized biography, though he rejects that label.
But Frazier squanders his research on a bloated story full of digressions and sentimental pieties. Reading Thirteen Moons is like riding a slow mule through the mountains with a guide who keeps stopping to describe every river, cove, and bush along the way. Throughout the novel, Frazier shows a better feel for the landscape of the Appalachians than for his characters. Much of his slender plot hinges on a girl whom his narrator, Will Cooper, allowed to get away in his youth and who preoccupies him into his ninth decade. But Frazier reveals so little about Claire that it’s unclear why she plays Moby-Dick to Will’s Ahab and he can’t give his heart to another of the attractive women he meets after becoming a well-known lawyer, senator, and Confederate colonel.
Thirteen Moons also shows little sense of pacing or conflict. Scenes have the same emotional weight whether they involve a fighting duel or frying cornmeal mush in lard. Frazier is clearly not a man who shares Lillian Hellman’s view that any sentence beginning with “I remember” is too long. In one gassy paragraph he gives us, “I’ll set the record straight,” “my recollection is,” and “to the best of my remembrance.” The more words he piles on, the less clear he becomes. He tells us that a character dug in the dirt with “the tines of his stubby and spatulate fingers.” Did he mean that the man’s fingers had tines, perhaps sharp fingernails? Or that he used his fingers as tines? Don’t the connotations of “tines” (sharp) clash with those of “spatulate” (flattened)? The novel is full of such lines, overwritten to the point of opacity.
What is the theme of all this? Will reflects late in life that most of us “reach a point where we would give the rest of our withering days for the month of July in our seventeenth year,” one many Mitch Albom–like pseudoprofundities. The line might sound deep. Perhaps it’s true of some people. But how many 80-year-olds do you know who would say: “Yes! Shoot me next month! Just give me back that acne! That curfew! And that summer job at McDonald’s!”? Such romanticism drives the entire novel. And if you share Frazier’s world view, you may love Thirteen Moons. If don’t, you won’t find much comfort in it, except perhaps in a line near the end. In old age, Will says he has learned that “journeys all eventually reach a conclusion.” So, too, does this book.
Best line: A description of a house in the Indian village of Cowee: “That Cowee house was old, from the time when they still buried dead loved ones in the dead floor, but Charley could not remember exactly whose bones had rested near as a lover beneath his old sleeping platform.”
Worst line: “There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel. We’re called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the end.” These are the opening lines of Thirteen Moons and perhaps the worst beginning of a novel by a well-known author since Norman Mailer had a dangling modifier in the first sentence of Harlot’s Ghost.
Furthermore: You can find a biography of William Holland Thomas by searching for his name in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and other helpful background on the events in Thirteen Moons by searching Wikipedia for “Cherokee Trail of Tears,” which the novel refers to by its formal name of the Cherokee Removal. www.wikipedia.org
Published: October 2006
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.