“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to get one more day in the hospital ward.“
Wounded in the American Civil War, Inman is a Confederate soldier who turns his back on the carnage of the battlefields and begins a treacherous journey back to his homelands in the Northern Carolina mountains and to the woman he loved before the war began.
Charles Frazier’s story also portrays a parallel journey for her – Ada – as she struggles to wrest a living from the neglected land that was her only inheritance on her once-prosperous father’s death. A young woman raised in the niceties of Charleston society, relocated by her pastor father’s ill-health to the backwoods, she might be well-read and able to play the piano, but without servants is reduced to digging undergarments from the bottom of the laundry pile in the hope time has rendered them less stale. She survives on dried-up biscuits and eggs scavenged from hens left to run wild and guarded by a bully of a cockerel who terrifies her.
“The rooster cocked his head at an angle and fixed a shining black eye on her…Ada waved her hands and said, Shoo! When she did, the rooster launched himself at her face, twisting in the air so that he arrived spurs first, wings flogging…Ada hit at it with open-handed blows until it fell away and then she ran to the porch and into the house.”
A sympathetic neighbour sends the intrepid young Ruby to help. A wonderful no-nonsense character, Ruby announces that she will teach Ada how to manage the farm, but has no intention of emptying her chamber pot. She reminds me of the heroine of Della Owens’ book Where the Crawdads Sing, with a mother absent since her earliest years and a wastrel father intermittently abandoning her to her own devices
“The yellow and black rooster walked by the porch and paused to stare at them. I despise that bird, Ada said. He tried to flog me.“
“I wouldn’t keep a flogging rooster.“
“Then how might we run it off?” Ada said, looking at her with puzzlement.
Ruby rose, stepped off the porch and in one swift motion snatched up the rooster, tucked his body under her left arm, and with her right hand pulled off his head.
“He’ll be stringy, so we’d best stew him awhile,” Ruby said.
Frazier’s writing, to my mind is impressively descriptive, whether showing us the rugged beauty of Inman’s homeland or Ada’s exhaustion at unaccustomed work in the fields:
“Her arms were mackled red like a measles sufferer from being pricked and scraped with the cut grass and she had a blood-filled blister in the web of skin between her thumb and forefinger..near collapse…in a fretful hybrid of sleep and wake…she felt she was pitching hay all through the night.”
I have recommended this book to several friends, none of whom have been disappointed. This is actually my third reading of Cold Mountain. It will not be my last.
(P.S. An excellent film of the book has also been made, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law)