Cold Mountain

The Civil War is winding down and an injured veteran recovers enough to set out for home and a chance to finish what he started with the girl he left behind. How much of a story is that? Well, how about what Homer did with Ulysses? What makes the story is what happens along the way, and in Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier; Vintage) the veteran, Inman, happens across a variety of adventures that would have kept even Ulysses busy.

And Ada is not Penelope with time to be knitting. Her father having died shortly after Inman went off to the war, she has had to learn for the first time to manage for herself. Her “Help Wanted” ad brings Ruby who proceeds to take over. Ruby is illiterate but she knows everything there is to know about running a farm and next thing you know Ada is chopping wood and slaughtering hogs and getting the old place spruced up something fierce.

Even so, it might not be much of a story if it weren’t set in Appalachia. What is it about Appalachian English that gives it such a tang? I remember William Least Heat Moon in his Blue Highways meeting someone in Appalachia who had been so sick the week before that she “had the weary dismals,” indeed was “hanging on the drop edge of yonder.”

Inman meets an old woman high in the mountains who tells him “You’d blithen my day if you’d take shelter and dinner at my camp.” Over cornmeal flatbread and goat meat she tells him about her life and how her family pushed her into marriage years before with a much older man:

“You’ve seen these old men – sixty-five, seventy – and they’ve gone through about five wives. Killed them from work and babies and meanness. I woke up one night laying in bed next to him and knew that’s all I was: fourth in a row of five headstones. I got right up and rode out before dawn on his best horse and traded it a week later for this cart and eight goats. By now there’s not enough greats to say how distant these goats are from the first batch. And the carts, like what they say about a hundred year old axe, it’s not had but two new heads and four new handles.”

Her analysis of the Civil War is simple:

“Nigger-owning makes the rich man proud and ugly and it makes the poor man mean. It’s a curse laid on the land. We’ve lit a fire and now its burning us down.”

She has a salve to put on Inman’s wounds and tells him the sting of the medicine will fade: “Our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of God’s care for us.”

Inman tells him about Ada and her beauty, and she points her pipe at him and says: “You listen. Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing. But it’s a common mistake none the less.”

It’s called down-home wisdom and if George Bush had spent more time in the Appalachians, we’d all be better off. “We’ve lit a fire and now its burning us down..”

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