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Cold Mountain | Study Guide

Charles Frazier

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Cold Mountain | Context


Cold Mountain is without a doubt a war novel, but Charles Frazier did not want to get too deeply involved in the technicalities of the Civil War or even the divisive issue of slavery that led to it. As he says in an interview, he began with his preferred setting for the story (the Appalachian Mountains), added the fragments of a true family story that happened to take place during the Civil War, and then layered in his desire to stick with the type of war story he describes as "about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants." The classic model for this type of story is the Greek epic The Odyssey, which Frazier admits he emulated in some ways.

The Appalachian Mountains

The strength and self-reliance of the people—especially the women who were left alone during the Civil War—and the lushness of the natural world are the aspects of late-19th-century life in Appalachia that Frazier researched so thoroughly and wrote into the story.

Self-reliance was a requirement for mountain life. Appalachia was made up of small, independent communities separated by rough mountain terrain. The people avoided traveling to other communities as much as possible because of the difficulty of the journey. This isolation meant families had to be mostly self-sufficient. They grew crops, raised and hunted animals for food, lived near streams that provided water, chopped trees for firewood, and spun and dyed wool to weave clothes and linens. Rather than buying the things they could not provide themselves, mountain folk tended to barter because many did not work at jobs that provided money. In Cold Mountain, the character Ruby Thewes is a master barterer.

Appalachian men and women shared many chores, although the traditional division of labor found men hunting and laboring in the fields while women cared for the children and the home, including the kitchen garden and any livestock. When the men in the mountains were forced to leave home and fight in the Civil War, women faced a void because typically every member of the household contributed to the well-being of the family. When one member left, those behind had to take on new responsibilities. The effect might have worn down the women if they did not have deep connections with one another, such as the deep friendship Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes develop in Cold Mountain. Women also tended to "cherish their 'pretties,'" as Kathryn Stripling Byer, essayist and former poet laureate of North Carolina, puts it. They sang, worked artistic patterns into their quilts, and filled their homes with wild flowers. Ada shows this tendency throughout the book—sketching the beautiful things she sees, creating a scarecrow that is both lovely and functional, and enjoying music whenever she can.

One reason Appalachian people were able to be so independent was the bounty of the natural world in which they lived. To put the lushness in perspective, Florie Takaki, park ranger and coordinator at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, describes western North Carolina as "the most diverse area in the country in terms of plant species other than the Everglades and the Pacific Northwest." The people knew how to use the plants for healing, food, building, and for creating sturdy items like ropes. As shown by the characters throughout Cold Mountain, Native American people knew where to find the plants they needed, could recognize them on sight, and could recite their benefits.

Mountaineers in the Civil War

Slaves were rarely found in Appalachia, and the mountain people tended to side with the Federals (Union) on the issue. Nevertheless, the men living in Confederate states were forced to serve in the army following the passage of the Confederate Conscription Act in 1862. Home Guards, like those in Cold Mountain, were established in the mountain towns to look for deserters and to "keep the peace" if disgruntled inhabitants began to revolt against the war and its hardships. Because most men from mountain areas preferred not to participate in a war based on issues and ideas that held little relevance for them, the guards were kept busy. Some of them abused their power, as Teague does in the novel.

How Homer's The Odyssey Inspired Inman's Journey

In Homer's Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus tries to return home to Ithaca after the Greek victory in the Trojan War. Odysseus's journey is beset with challenge after challenge as a result of angering the sea god Poseidon with a show of hubris, or pride. The journey lasts 10 years. In the meantime, believing Odysseus to be dead, a group of suitors has overrun his palace to court his widowed Penelope.

In an interview, Charles Frazier states when he first heard the story of his great-great uncle Inman walking home from the Civil War, one of the things he immediately thought of in terms of a story line was Homer's Odyssey. He recalled the warrior Odysseus, "weary of war, trying to get home and facing all kinds of impediments along the way," and his wife, Penelope, left behind and "beset by all kinds of problems of her own that are as compelling as his." Frazier reread the classic story and kept it in mind as he wrote his own story celebrating a man who wanted to leave war behind and return home and find peace with his beloved.

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