Cold Mountain | Study Guide

Charles Frazier

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Cold Mountain | Chapter 8 : Source and Root | Summary

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Summary

Ada and Ruby are walking to town in a cold rain, and Ada's mood is as bleak as the weather. She aches from the hard work of haying, and is sick of being "cove-bound after weeks of work." Somewhat oblivious to Ada's gloom, Ruby keeps a running commentary on what they see, especially the many birds they encounter.

Ada's mood lifts as the rain stops and they do their shopping. She buys the things she longs for—books, journal, drawing pencils—as well as the few supplies they need. However, when she and Ruby stop at a wealthy woman's house for a visit, she is disgusted by Mrs. McKennet's romanticizing of the war by telling a fanciful tale of death and romance. This tale is offset by the true story Ada and Ruby hear on their way home, told by a captive who narrates his story of woe through the bars of his prison cell.

The captive and two other outliers had been hiding in his father's house, but the Home Guard learned of their whereabouts and raided the homestead. They beat his father and then stabbed him, leaving him to die. Next, they shot his two friends to death, then tied him up and dragged him to jail because "it'd look better if we brought somebody in now and then," as the Guard named Birch says.

Ada and Ruby discuss the story on the way home until they see an unusual sight, a great blue heron who comes close to them before taking off in flight. Ada sketches the sight and dates it: 9 October 1864. The two women continue on their way, and Ruby shares the story told to her by her father. Ruby's mother claimed that Ruby's father was a tall blue heron, not Stobrod. Ada falls silent after this surprising tale, and the women walk along without comment, seeing many more birds along the way.

Ada breaks the silence with her own surprising story about her mother, who died in childbirth. Monroe first met Claire Dechutes when she was 16 and he was 25. Smitten from the beginning, Monroe got her father's word he could marry her when she turned 18. However, when the day on which he planned to give her an engagement ring arrived, he found her kissing another man, a French associate of Claire's father. He ran from the scene, came upon a church burning that night but could not save it, and then sailed for England the next year. Nearly 20 years later, Claire Dechutes returned to Charleston, a childless widow. Within days, Monroe once again gained her father's consent to marry her, and he and Claire were happily married for two years. When she died, he determined his life was now to be at the service of their newborn baby, Ada.

Analysis

Birds appear throughout the book, but never more so than in this chapter. First, as Ada and Ruby walk to town, they see a variety of resident and migrating birds, which Ruby comments on in terms of their songs, habits, and intelligence. On the walk home, the women encounter not just the regal blue heron but also small birds flying out of an apple tree, a "cloud of martins" flying from a maple tree, and "fleet chords" of night birds flying across the moon. The birds seem to be gracing the women with reminders of freedom and independence, two things Ada and Ruby have won for themselves through their hard work.

The fact that both childless women have amazing stories about their mothers points to the tightening bond between the two of them. They are friends, not much alike but also not entirely different. Hard work and storytelling have yoked them together. When Ada points out Venus in the night sky, readers cannot help but see the friendship and love that has evolved between the two women. Readers are also reminded that love stories overcome stories of hate—of slavery, violence, and war.

Although the story of the burning church that is part of Monroe's narrative regarding Claire might seem out of place, it is significant. It might have kindled in Monroe the call to ministry that he accepts with "both resignation and glee" after an aimless year in Europe "examining old churches and old paintings."

Similarly, the stories of Mrs. McKennet and of the captive are instructive for readers. From Ada's response to Mrs. McKennet's story, readers see just how repugnant her old, rather frivolous Charleston life has become to her. From the conversation Ada and Ruby have about the captive's story, readers are reminded of the different perspectives of the two friends and of how they have learned to respect each other.

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