Saturday, September 29, 2007

The story is Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier.

Will Cooper’s story begins as old man.

At the turn of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist Will lives in the same house he has occupied for nearly nine decades in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Nearly a century in age, Will is an eccentric, somewhat crotchety, high and mighty old man with an acute awareness of his failings yet no sense of remorse.

“I knew her grandfather back in the slavery days. Knew him and owned him, if I’m to tell the truth. I still wonder why he didn’t cut my throat… I’d have had it coming.”

Upon starting to read this book I immediately wondered how I could enjoy a story written through such unapologetic eyes. Yet as I turned each page it became apparent it was neither Frazier’s characterization nor his plot that was pulling me through. Rather, it was his thoughtfully written prose and well researched account of Cherokee life in the 19th century.

What I liked most about Thirteen Moons is the perspective it offers on indigenous people and colonialism in North Carolina in the 19th century. Frazier’s story includes the expected tragic elements of disease, alcoholism and eventual forced removal. However, these heartbreaks are contextualised by vivid descriptions of how Cherokee people were acting with and against the inevitable changes to their environment. For example, over the course of his life the “red-headed freckled Indian” Featherstone, a penniless runaway, transforms himself into a wealthy slave-owning plantation lord. Meanwhile the one-hundred and twenty year old Granny Squirrel lives in a shack in the forest, following the ‘old ways’ she practices an Indian magic so powerful that even Will is an ardent believer in her potions and prophecies. The contrast between these characters represents a broad spectrum of experiences that allows Frazier to avoid the stereotype of the “noble savage” while also conveying how brutal, senseless and complete the eventual break-up of The Nation really was.

What I liked least about Thirteen Moons was the “mysterious and beautiful” character of Claire; the love of Will’s life. She was a little bit too mysterious for me, to the point of seeming simple and selfish. As Will is driven to win and loose everything for the sake of love, I would have liked to have some inkling as to what made Claire so compelling. Frankly, she just seemed dull.

Frazier’s writing style, as we experienced in his first book Cold Mountain, is grand, long-winded and not afraid to be sentimental, which will probably turn a lot of readers off. I, however, loved its sincerity. I loved the ambition of an author who creates a character so large that within the course of 400 pages Will is bound into servitude, adopted by a native American tribe, builds an empire of trading posts, bears witness to the ‘Trail of Tears’, practices as a frontier lawyer, buys enough land to create his own ‘nation’, becomes a senator in Washington, a colonel in the American revolution, and of course falls madly in love with the one woman he can not have.

But don’t worry, these are not plot spoilers. As a story told in hindsight there are few surprises. Rather, Thirteen Moons reads like a series of short moral tales that are humorous, melancholic and endearing. Any sense of action or dramatics seems to get buried beneath Frazier’s verbosity. So while the blurb may sound like a rollicking adventure, Thirteen Moons is actually more like a stroll through history that places more emphasis on place rather than pace.

In conclusion: read it, but don’t read it all at once. My advice is to do what I did and lose the book halfway through and forget about it. Then, three weeks later find the book under your bed and pick up where you left off. It doesn’t go anywhere fast, but it does offer a poetic and personal glimpse into a distant and harsh period of American history.

8 comments:

redcap said...

I've been meaning to read this one, dot. I adored Cold Mountain when I read it - it's one of my desert island books - and it wasn't because of the story, either. Frazier is just a beautiful writer - he reminds me of Thoreau at his best. I flicked to the end from halfway through to find out whether he was going to make it home or not because that was distracting me from the writing. I'll definitely give this one a go!

kiki said...

i'm going to read it Dot, because you said so.

dot said...

redcap, i thought Cold Mountain was great too! and having seen the (stupid) film i also already knew the ending so enjoyed the book for its writing and incidental details.

you should Kiki (although i never said it was the best book in the world... i'll review some sci-fi later on).

actonb said...

Dot, this sounds amazing. Great review, thank you!

I haven't read Cold Mountain either, just a couple more to add to the ever-growing pile I guess.

meva said...

I am really liking Thirteen Moons. I've been reading it on and off for a couple of months now. It's huge, but the characters and the writing are both wonderful.

Parts of the story are a little familiar, though. Another DVD to add to your growing list, Dot, is Little Big Man, starring a very young Dustin Hoffman. Watch that and you'll probably know what I mean. Not that I'm suggesting Frazier has plagiarised his story at all. But if you like his book, you'll probably like the movie, too.

Dot said...

thanks Meva, i'll definitely check it out.

Trish said...

Reading this one now; thanks for the review!

Micaella Lopez said...

Like Cold Mountain, I expect to revisit it several times and be taken through a wide range of emotions each time. I highly recommend this book to all readers.
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