I just finished Cold Mountain last night, which means this is one of my promptest book reviews in the history of Soy Chai Bookshelf. I want to say something while it's still fresh, while I'm still aching with the tears that threatened to spill over when I turned the last page. I'm not so sure what it is that I want to say though. How do you put impression into language, much less the language of literature?
Let's start with the basics. There is no true plot, which is part of what's so lovely about this novel. There are settings and situations and motivations, but no core story. There are two protagonists: Ada and Inman, who love one another, though neither seems to be sure why. Perhaps because there was nobody else around to love, perhaps because Inman was leaving for war and needed something to hold onto. Perhaps Ada wanted to play into that. But four years have passed since he left and they're still writing the occasional letter. Severely wounded, Inman is in a war hospital when the novel begins. Having just lost her father, Ada is penniless and alone on a large farm on Cold Mountain which is just about all she has in the world, with no idea to run it or even take care of herself. Inman leaves the hospital, a Confederate outlier, setting out for Cold Mountain, home. Ada, hungry and ragged, is approached by Ruby, a girl with nothing in the world but knowledge of its natural world. Together they turn Ada's farm into sustenance. Though physically apart, Ada and Inman change together, into lovers more suited for one another. The novel is set against the southeastern United States in Inman's rambles, a mountain farm in Ada's education, and, more broadly, the Civil War.
Inman's journey is often compared to The Odyssey. Though I was supposed to, I never read that, so I can't be sure. However, I did read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and it reminds me a lot of that. Inman meets people, friendly and not so much, encounters situations, faces challenges beyond belief. Unlike Christian's journey in Pilgrim's Progress, however, I actually enjoyed Inman's tale. Frazier's descriptions of the changing landscape are glorious and the complexity of Inman's character as revealed to us is intense. He is certainly a good person, but vengeful; imaginative, but tied to life; and filled with a despair that can't help but counter the hopefulness of his journey. Unlike Christian, Inman stands for himself and no larger concept.
While Ada is a good character, I actually found Ruby a lot more interesting. Like Ada, she never knew her mother. However, she grew up with an absent father and no resources, and was often left to fend for herself as a very young child, and was forced to learn about the land around just to find a way to survive and to find meaning in life. It's never quite explained how she knows so much about farming as well as foraging, but since other families seem to have fed her occasionally, perhaps she learned from them. Whatever it is, it works, and the way that she transforms Ada as much as the farm is just lovely. She doesn't just tell Ada to do this and that, but teaches her and befriends her. Both save each other.
Overall, Cold Mountain was a lovely read and I was entranced throughout. It definitely deserves a reread, partially because it just made me feel so happy - not because of the situations but because of the language and descriptions (I must have stopped to read bits out loud to my husband at least a dozen times) - and partially to more fully appreciate the allusions. The only negative thing I can think to say is that I wish I hadn't read the epilogue. Not only did it make me depressed but it's just the kind of thing I don't like, a ten-year later recap. How everything wrapped up wasn't exactly original and it certainly wasn't necessary. I had already come to that conclusion on my own anyway, but I prefer to have it open. However, except for those two pages, this was a wonderful book and it won't be long before I reread it. I high recommend it, particularly to those who loving reading about the American landscape and/or farm life.