By Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Aug. 24 - Early in Charles Frazier's masterly, poetic "Cold Mountain,'' the central female character Ada begins reading "The Odyssey'' to Ruby, the seasoned child-woman who shares her farm. Meanwhile, the scarred veteran Inman is experiencing his own harrowing, perilous odyssey as the Civil War rages on.

Ada Monroe, the well-born, well-read, oddly reared daughter of a recently deceased minister, is fixed in one place for most of Frazier's tale, which takes place in 1863 and 1864. Inman (his last name, used alone throughout the novel) walks away from a hospital for Confederate wounded at the start of the book and is constantly on the move, meeting odd and dangerous characters, even a Circe. But both Ada and Inman experience the varieties of nature as the seasons shift from heat to cold.

Written by Frazier over several years and drawn from family tales recounted by his father, Charles O. Frazier, this first novel truly feels like an intense, deeply thoughtful labor of love. Every word seems to have been chosen with care.

"Cold Mountain'' takes its title from a forested tower, Inman's destination, where the novel reaches its heartbreaking climax. It speaks to the reader with candor and honesty, without flamboyance, or literary tricks, pulling us ever deeper into the thoughts of Ada and Inman as they move irresistibly and fearfully toward one another.

Frazier has set out a story of love between two people, each wounded, who hardly know each other, but who desperately need not to be alone. Until the very end of the book, they are far apart.

Inman, whose travels are hard, thinks frequently of Ada, who once sat in his lap briefly at a holiday party. Ada, at first concerned with how she will survive after the death of her father, only fleetingly dwells on Inman. After the coming of Ruby, who arrives to set Ada's confused life in order, the former Charleston belle is too busy mastering the art of husbandry of animals and crops to think of the man who is painfully dragging himself across wild country to come home to her.

Beginning with Inman's decision to leave the hospital where he has been recovering from a near-fatal neck wound - thus making him a deserter, or "outlier'' - Frazier recounts the runaway veteran's wanderings in every other chapter or so. Alternate chapters center on Ada's life alone, then her work under the tutelage of Ruby, who is rewarded with Homer.

Frazier's prose is unmannered and direct, yet there is an elegiac feeling about it, especially in his descriptions of trees, plants, birds and animals. Cumulatively, his writing summons an inspiring sense of an uncivilized America nearly 150 years ago, a raw, sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly place inhabited by people who are savage and cruel, kind and strange. As a fugitive, Inman must take back roads and obscure footpaths, always hiding from the murderous Home Guard. On more than one occasion, he is forced to kill.

Inman is haunted by nightmares of bloody battles at Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Petersburg and Fredericksburg, which Frazier describes in unflinching, horrific detail. Once a happy, handsome country boy, Inman has become hardened, cynical, burned out. He feels he has lost his soul and is thus unworthy of the worldly yet innocent Ada.

Along with his ground sheet and bedding and trusty two-barreled LeMat handgun, Inman carries a favorite book, a coverless copy of the third volume of Bartram's "Travels,'' which describes a place he associates with the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains through which he drives himself. Ada reads Homer and Shakespeare and the more modern "Adam Bede.'' She also muses on the favorites of her late father, the eccentric minister Monroe, who used Emerson in his sermons and revered Wordsworth.

Frazier's descriptions of the farm, and the roads and trails to Cold Mountain, evoke the Romantic poets, whose works were only a generation old at the time of the War between the States. In America, it is a time when Indians still lived free in the East and cherished their own beliefs in the natural world, when white men and women in the wilderness harbored strange superstitions and fears. The ever practical and pragmatic Ruby, all but abandoned by her carousing, fiddle-scratching father Stobrod, works from all manner of weird ideas about what can and cannot be done at any given time.

Frazier takes us into the hearts of Ada and Inman and makes us care for them terribly. But he has peopled his novel with odd, sometimes twisted, sometimes almost saintly characters: a preacher out to murder his pregnant girlfriend, a degenerate family that sells deserters to the rabid Guard, the struggling widowed mother of a tiny daughter, a quaint old goat woman and Ruby and old Stobrod, who somehow becomes a master fiddler. All of them explain themselves, making "Cold Mountain'' a fascinating collage of storytelling.

Above all, Frazier's book is a journey, a voyage through time and space and an exploration of the human spirit. For Inman, the torturous wanderings test his will to survive. For Ada, putting down roots opens a new life of discipline and learning.

Oddly enough, this story of a 19th-century Odysseus and his Penelope sometimes feels like the big, impossible book of the summer, "Mason & Dixon,'' Thomas Pynchon's trek through America a century earlier. But Pynchon's book is made entirely in the brain. "Cold Mountain'' comes from the heart and soul.