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Cold Mountain | Study Guide

Charles Frazier

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Cold Mountain | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Cold Mountain features two interrelated plots. One is the story of Inman's struggle to get home to the mountains of western North Carolina, and the other tells of Ada Monroe's struggles to adapt to life in those mountains. The stories are linked by their love affair, and the chapters alternate between their two narratives, with the novel opening at the beginning of Inman's odyssey.

Inman, a Confederate soldier, is in a military hospital recovering from what should have been a mortal wound to his neck. As he regains his strength, he resolves to desert the army and walk home. Readers learn about some of the horrors he has seen while fighting as he relates them to a blind man who wonders why Inman says he sometimes wishes he could not see. Given access to Inman's thoughts, readers can further see how emotionally damaged he is from the experiences. Inman supplies himself for the long trip, writes a letter to Ada to advise her he is coming home, and begins his treacherous journey under the dim light of a new moon.

Ada's story begins with her attempts to write a letter to Inman. Her thoughts return to her privileged upbringing in Charleston, which has left her ill prepared to face her current situation, and also bring readers up to date on how she and her preacher father came to be in Cold Mountain some six years ago. She is alone on a farm that is no longer productive, without much food, and still grieving the loss of her father who died several months ago. Ada appears to be depressed; she is lethargic and mostly passes her time reading and looking at the scenery. On this day, however, she visits her father's grave, stops at the post office to get her mail, and visits her closest neighbors and friends, the Swangers. Ada follows Esco Swanger's advice to look into a well to see her future. She sees a man walking and has the strong feeling she should wait for him to arrive. The letter Ada receives from the post office advises her she is nearly broke, so she determines she must stay on the farm, yet she does not know how to survive. The next morning Ruby Thewes arrives, having been sent by Sally Swanger. Ruby knows everything about running a farm and doing what needs to be done to survive, and she and Ada make an agreement to work as peers to bring Black Cove back to life.

Meanwhile, Inman has been walking for days in miserable weather. Although he knows it is dangerous to be among people who might turn him in as a deserter, he decides to enter a settlement to buy food. Three men attack him, but he holds them off and continues walking. By the end of the day, he has reached the broad Cape Fear River, and a young woman offers to take him across in a canoe. The men he overcame at the settlement have followed him, however, and begin shooting. After a narrow escape on the other side of the river, Inman continues his journey westward.

Back at Black Cove, Ruby has assessed what needs to be done and organizes efforts to complete the work. Readers learn Ruby's life story, as she tells Ada of her motherless childhood, marked by utter neglect and the resulting need to learn survival skills. All this appears in stark contrast to Ada's motherless but pampered childhood. Ruby's father, Stobrod Thewes, went to war but is unaccounted for, so the two women are also both now fatherless.

The next trouble Inman encounters comes as he witnesses and prevents an attempted murder. A man, who turns out to be a preacher named Solomon Veasey, is about to throw a young woman over a cliff because he has impregnated her. Inman rescues the drugged victim, takes her home, and makes sure the townspeople know what their preacher has done before continuing on his way.

As fall arrives at Black Cove, things are in much better shape on the farm; one night, Ada and Ruby are able to feed and house three women and their children fleeing Federal raiders. This episode emphasizes their safe position in the cove and their ability to now somewhat relax and share more of each other's life stories. For Inman, however, things are neither safe nor comfortable. He and Solomon Veasey meet up again and travel on together, with Veasey often getting Inman into trouble with his immoral antics. Inman enjoys one evening in a lodge with a peddler named Odell who shares his interesting life story of giving everything up for the love of an enslaved woman. This is one of Charles Frazier's few indications of the evils of slavery—the issue behind the Civil War Inman and so many others are trying to leave behind. The cost of the war on innocent people's lives is further confirmed by a scene from Ada's narrative. She and Ruby hear a prisoner's tale of the murder of his father and friends at the hands of the Home Guard.

Inman and Veasey meet up with a debauched man named Junior who takes them to his home. He lives there with his deviant wife, her nearly identical two sisters, and several children. Junior betrays Inman and Veasey to the Home Guard, who march them and other prisoners for a several days before deciding to shoot them all and bury them in a shallow grave. Miraculously, Inman survives with a head wound and is cared for by a kind slave who encounters him on the road. When he is able, Inman returns to Junior's house to retrieve his belongings and take revenge on Junior.

As things get worse for Inman, they keep improving for Ada and Ruby, at least in terms of their relationship and their progress on the farm. However, Ada pines for Inman as much as he longs for her. Most of her thoughts are about their blossoming relationship before he left for war four long years ago. Inman's thoughts, unfortunately, are mostly about the horrors of war. However, he does have a period of relief during which an elderly woman with the gift of healing takes care of him and helps him realize that the life of solitude she leads is not for him. His future must remain focused on getting home to Ada.

Back at Black Cove, one deserter has made his way home to Cold Mountain. It is Ruby's father, whom she catches stealing from their corncrib. Despite his thieving ways, Stobrod Thewes seems to be on the road to redemption, helped along with a new love for playing the fiddle. Ruby's heart gradually softens toward her father, and she begins doing small things to help him survive.

On his end, Inman helps an 18-year-old single mother named Sara, widowed by the war, to survive. He saves her, her home, her baby, and her meager provisions from Federal raiders, and comforts her in a compassionate way. She feeds him and helps him feel human again by cleaning and mending his clothes. Not long after leaving Sara, Inman also helps a woman who has just lost her daughter. He makes a coffin, buries the girl, and shares a meal with the mournful woman.

The two stories of Ada and Inman finally converge on a mountain high above Black Cove. Ada and Ruby are doing what they can to save Stobrod's life. He has been shot by the Home Guard as a deserter, and the women find shelter in an abandoned Cherokee village during a snowstorm to care for him as his life hangs in the balance. Inman comes upon the village during the final leg of his journey, and he and Ada are reunited at last. They spend a few days getting to know each other again as Inman recovers from his journey. They have a few blissful nights as lovers, planning how they will spend the rest of their lives together. First, they must all stay safe, however. They decide that Ada, Ruby, and Stobrod will go to Black Cove, but Inman will travel north to surrender to Federal troops. However, the Home Guard once again rears its ugly head and Inman is killed.

Nine years later, the Epilogue takes readers back to Black Cove. Ada has borne a daughter, conceived during those blissful nights with Inman. Ruby has married and has three sons, and they all live together with Stobrod on the farm.

Cold Mountain Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 After a short relationship with Ada, Inman goes to war.

Rising Action

2 Ada's father suddenly dies, leaving her alone at Black Cove.

3 Inman is badly wounded.

4 Ada and Ruby begin to restore the farm.

5 Inman begins walking home.

6 Ada and Inman are blissfully reunited on Cold Mountain.


7 Inman is killed.

Falling Action

8 Ada has Inman's baby.


9 Ada and Ruby and their families live happily at Black Cove.

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