Book: Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier

February 27, 2008

With a vivid sense of place and history, Frazier’s second work in many ways is more charming and entwining than his first (Cold Mountain), more personal and engaging. Eulogizing the mountain home of the Cherokees in engrossing language throughout the novel, Frazier’s narrator frames the plot with the land itself at all times. The novel is tactile, visual. But not just setting.

Frazier’s protagonist is an interesting, remarkably sensitive orphan who effectively builds himself alone, starting from age 12, when he is thrust into the wilderness by an alarmingly disaffected aunt and uncle with little more than a key and a vague map. Heck, they didn’t even have maps for the place he was supposed to go–a frontier trading post, to which he is bound (again by the unscrupulous family members) for seven years.

Here in this shack-store not even within American boundaries, he builds a life woven of the southern Appalachian landscape and the local Cherokees. He is adopted as a son by Bear, a sweet and lamentable elder. He meets a girl who smells like lavender, briefly, and falls terrifically in love.

But, as all things for the Cherokee went in the 1830s (bad), so do a lot of things here. Expect love and beauty and sinuous plot, but not joy. Frazier’s pace through the first half or two-thirds of the novel crescendos in a page-turner fashion, dragging you, the spectator, through many phases of the thirteen moons along with the characters. You see lovely things. Brief and beleaguered happiness. Knowing nothing good will come of this.

The last third of the novel feels like a dirge, winding down after an action-packed denouement. The greatest flaw of this story is its unwillingness to stop. You keep tumbling through the protagonist’s life until you wonder what you’re headed toward. Pain outweighs optimism at every turn. Each happiness leads to fifteen sorrows.

A beautiful book. Well worth reading and savoring. Expect to feel the mountains around you, dripping on you. Don’t expect redemption.

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