When Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 it made quite a splash with the public, both popular and literary. Impressive reviews popped up everywhere I looked. Then Hollywood added its stamp of approval by chasing the book’s popularity with a movie. What I learned about Mr. Frazier by cultural osmosis tempted me further. Hailing from Asheville, North Carolina he loved his mountains. My mountains. His subject was the Civil War, a piece of American history that interested me on several levels. The reasons for me to read Cold Mountain continued to pile up like a stack of books on a night table.
And so I did.
About halfway through the novel I struggled with my attitude toward the book. I simply was not enjoying it. This was a surprising admission because every page contained very good writing. In fact, I tested that idea with a little game. I closed the book, opened it to a random page, and, with my eyes closed, pinned a finger to the page and read the paragraph under my fingertip. I did this several times and never failed to read an impressive passage. So, I kept working my way through the book.
Same results. In the micro-picture, I recognized a great writer. In the macro-assessment, I still could not engage in the story. There was something off, I thought, about the way the story moved. Or didn’t move.
I actually felt guilty about this. What’s wrong with me? I wondered. How can so many readers love this book, while I cannot even finish it?
So be it. I officially gave up.
Then in 2006, Mr. Frazier’s Thirteen Moons came out. If a story of the Civil War had tugged at me, this one on the Cherokee dragged me out of the shadows with a tow truck. This one I had to read.
And so I did . . . with the same results.
Sadly, I bid Mr. Frazier adios, wished him well, and went about my reading life without him. (The Cherokee have no word for “goodbye,” and I could not use their related phrase “donadagohvi” [“until we meet again”] because I planned no further rendezvous.)
In 2011 Mr. Frazier published Nightwoods. This book did not even make a blip on my radar. I’d learned my lesson. But fate came through with a special delivery. A friend who scavenges discarded books from libraries put Nightwoods in my hand in 2021. She told me she had not read it, but it seemed like something I might enjoy.
Despite noting the author’s name, I received the book out of courtesy and carried it into my home by my own hand. Which seems ironic now. It was as if Charles Frazier had somehow enlisted me to play my own part in a grand trick he had plotted against me. Or another way to think of it might be this: Charles refused to give up on me.
As a writer myself, I am well aware (all writers think we are) of the ingredients that make for a great piece of literature. It’s the stuff that all authors TRY to shape and twist and refine into a masterpiece. Here’s a short list that I believe in:
- The way the words are put together must engage a reader with beauty, enlightenment, and maybe a little profundity. There is a certain rhythm needed. This is probably the part of writing that is hard to teach. I think of it as being innate in the natural writer.
- To surprise with original ideas. These may surface as unique similes/metaphors or by using the unexpected word that serves perfectly. Often it is a comparison of an act in the story to something familiar to the reader.
- The reader MUST care about a protagonist. There must be an emotional investment.
- The story has got to grab the reader and take him/her hostage.
When I inexplicably picked up Nightwoods one evening and opened the covers, I quickly crashed headlong into everything on the above list. By the time I was halfway through, I knew this was already on my list of favorite books. I did not want it to end. My wife kidded me about how slowly I finished off the last pages.
So, without even mentioning the storyline, I will say that this is a review of a masterpiece. And it’s a review with a theme of redemption. Whether it is mine or Mr. Frazier’s, I cannot say. All I know to do is thank him for writing this wonderful story. As a writer, I find it inspiring. As a reader, let me just pass it along to you. It will make me feel like the best of gift-givers.