June 8, 1997 Inman, a Confederate soldier, suffers a dreadful neck wound at Petersburg. During his long recuperation, he decides that he has had enough of the war. He starts heading home, out of the flatlands to Cold Mountain, dodging the home guard, nervous citizens, hungry outlaws and other flotsam and jetsam washed up in the last year of the Civil War.
His destination is in the Great Smokies, where (he hopes) Ada awaits. When he left, four years before, she was the cherished and indulged daughter of the local minister. She and Inman had shared but one tender moment. Enough to walk toward.
Ada's father had died during Inman's absence, leaving her in charge of a house and farm but with no idea how to plow, plant or harvest, how to put up food for the winter, how to lay up firewood. Ruby, a young woman left adrift by a ne'er-do-well father, agrees to move into the hired hand's cabin, pitch in with chores, and show Ada how to support herself.
Frazier's narrative alternates between Inman's and Ada's stories. It's a wonderful device. Inman's journey through the dregs of the Confederacy is paired with Ada's inner journey through the detritus of her prolonged childhood and the travails of the end-of-the-war economy.
Both stories come together in a long-abandoned Cherokee village, deep in the mountains, where... no, I won't give it away. But it's the right ending.
These paired journeys depict dreadful landscapes. On the outside are starving widows, abandoned farms and businesses, nightriders possessing all the authority there is. On the inside is loss of faith in the economy, in organized religion, in government, in self. The old order in the South is already gone and the new order doesn't look very good.
The only hope for Inman and Ada is to build a life for themselves in the mountains. Their struggle to do so is riveting.
The pace of this novel exactly matches its subject. Frazier's measured and graceful prose has the rhythm of a damaged but determined man shuffling toward home. Don't expect to race through this book. Savor it. You'll find the characters living in your head for a long time.
"Cold Mountain" is Frazier's first novel; an auspicious beginning. In casting about for a subject, he remembered the tales passed down from his great-great-grandfather, who walked home from a hospital during the Civil War. His ancestor would be proud.
Bill Campbell is director of grants and research at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.