Finally Finished: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

This book is probably the one – of all my readings thus far this year – that I have the most ambivalent feelings about. The second half of the book went much faster for me (reading speed-wise) than the first half. I’m a bit hung up on why this should be so. Is the second half better than the first, or is there just more action as the book approaches its climax just as Inman approaches his home? There is also the not to be underestimated factor that I actually focused on this book during the past 36 hours or so. This likely added some continuity for me when compared with the short spurts of time I grudgingly doled out to it during the first 29 days of the month. As is usually the case, the real answer is a combination of these (and probably unknown other) factors. Bottom line is, though, that I’m finished, and I have to admit I’m a results-oriented guy… :-). I’m not going to give away plot details in this post, so no spoiler alert, but I will say that if you want every mountain, valley, tree, plant, road, rock, river, run, rill, or rivulet in Appalachia described In detail, this is your book.

The book is often described as a “Civil War novel,” but I’d have to take exception to that. The Civil War is only the backdrop before which the story of Inman and Ada – and the land of Western North Carolina itself – can be told. The novel is more about the transformation of people. Both Ada and Inman change drastically during the time of their separation. Not just their character changes, but they both undergo the physical changes that only true hardships can effect.

Another theme that seems to run through the novel is that of what I guess I’d call “wounded-ness.” Many, if not all of the major characters are wounded in some way, most physically, but some emotionally or psychically as well. The country itself (here I do not mean the land, but the concept of the nation) is also wounded – something the reader really comes to appreciate as he follow Inman On his journey homeward. It is notable as well that there are several “healers” throughout the book: Ruby (Ada’s friend and ‘savior’), Inman himself, the old goat-herding woman that Inman meets in the mountains, and “The Power of Love” itself when Inman and Ada finally come together.

Also of note are the similarities this story has to the epic poem, The Odyssey of Homer (and do I really have to say “of Homer?” Oh well, I already did, and I’m not taking it out). After finishing the novel, I read a little about it on line, and found one interview with the author wherein he acknowledges that he re-read The Odyssey as part of his research. I agree that Inman is heroic and endured a long journey home after a war, but he is no Odysseus. And I guess we can be both grateful and disappointed by that. If I had to know one of them personally, I’d choose Inman. I feel he is more heroic in the modern sense, and does not mirror the ancient’s cunning – and self-serving intelligence. Nor his infidelity. Can you say “Calypso?”

I also was reminded while reading this book that many soldiers from the Civil War walked home (regardless of the enormous distance sometimes involved). Didn’t Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind also walk most of the way home upon his release from the Federal POW camp? I am reminded also that the “only ghost I’ve ever seen” (I won’t retell my personal ‘ghost story’ here, but since it is, after all, Halloween, I’ll include a link to my earlier post describing it in detail) was likely a Civil War soldier repeating his long walk home.

I must finish by saying how disappointed I was by the ending of this book. I don’t know how others felt (perhaps you can add a comment here? ) but I was uncharacteristically angry…

Just Finished: The Red Badge of Courage

This is my 5th “Civil War book” completed this year. For those who don’t already know, it’s the story of a young soldier (Yankee) and how he deals with “the horrors of war.”  In the early part of the book, the ‘action’ is primarily comprised of the young soldier’s (Henry Fleming) anxiety regarding what kind of soldier he will be when the battle lines are drawn and he finally sees action.  There is a lot of dread, as he fears his true nature is not heroic, but leaning more toward cowardly.  In his first engagement, his regiment repels a half-hearted rebel charge, leading to a premature celebration of victory, during which the real charge occurs.   Seeing a few of his comrades take flight, Henry (or ‘the youth’ as he is most often referred to in the narration) assumes the battle is lost and joins them.  Later he finds out the battle was won and he is ashamed of his actions.  He hesitates rejoining his regiment due to this shame, and during his separation, gazes upon many other horrors of war.  The dead, the dying, the maimed.  He eventually finds his way back to the regiment, fearing he will be mocked for running, but nobody realizes he did anything other than ‘I got separated.’   By this time, he has also incurred a non-combat wound to his head, which resembles a grazing shot from a confederate bullet.  This seems to verify his non-coward ‘status’ with his unit.  His brave actions in later engagements cement his reputation.

 His rationalization of his initial flight is deftly described in chapter 7:

 “Thoughts of his comrades came to him.  The brittle blue line had withstood the blows and won.  He grew bitter over it.  It seemed that the blind ignorance and stupidity of those little pieces had betrayed him.  He had been overturned and crushed by their lack of sense in holding the position, when intelligent deliberation would have convinced them that it was impossible.  He, the enlightened man who looks afar in the dark, had fled because of his superior perceptions and knowledge.  He felt a great anger against his comrades.  He knew it could be proved that they had been fools.”

One gets the sense of the overall confusion during a battle of that era.  Every time they think they’ve “won” something else comes up, or if they repel an advance, another won shortly follows.  At one point we find his unit facing the enemy forming for another attack “in the pitiless monotony of conflicts.” In one episode he overhears officers discussing plans and that they think of his regiment as a bunch of “mule-drivers” which, from his perspective – having fought like a man possessed in the last engagement – is untrue and insulting.  This fuels his aggression in later fights.  It is notable that his impetus for fighting has nothing to do with the war’s causes or politics, he is just simply “there.” At one point, the flag of his unit becomes a rallying point (perhaps this is why armies of that era marched – and fought – with flags prominently displayed).

 From chapter 19:

“Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him.  It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability.  It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him.  It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes.  Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power.  He kept near, as if it could be a saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his mind.”

Stephen Crane:

The novel is said to be more or less set during the Battle of Chancellorsville, although this is never stated in the text.  It’s also very short (130 pages in my version), but there is so much in the way of description of war and its horrors, that I found it exhausting nonetheless.

 The poem “Keenan’s Charge” by George Parsons Lathrop (read here) describes a charge from the Battle of Chancellorsville which is supposed to be the basis for Chapter 23 of The Red Badge of Courage.

All in all, an interesting read, and an iconic novel in American Literature. This book is available in the public domain and I read parts of it on my “Free Books” app on my iPhone.  I’ve also read (long ago) a short story by Stephen Crane (“The Monster”), and I think in college we read (at least) passages of another novel of his, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  Perhaps I will revisit those…

I was also reminded while reading of a favorite quotation – I think it was Winston Churchill who uttered the witticism “There is nothing in life as exhilarating as having been shot at without result.” I think the characters in this novel would truly appreciate that one.

Thoughts on Gone With the Wind

(I wrote most of this a few days ago offline, but now have peppered it with a bunch of quotations from the text)

As I’ve already written in earlier posts, I considered not having read this iconic work a serious gap in my ‘cultural literacy’ – one that has now thankfully been rectified.  At 959 pages, it took me maybe 20 hours total to read (at my age, that’s a pretty big time investment that I don’t make lightly)

I enjoyed the leisurely introduction of the characters in this book, the sheer length of which I suppose allows Mitchell this luxury.  Rhett Butler, for example, doesn’t even make his first appearance until after page 100.

To me, Gone With the Wind is the story of four people and how they dealt with the ‘end’ of the southern culture and the trauma of the Civil War. Agreed, the book has one protagonist, the infamous Scarlett O’Hara (-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler), but her interaction with one or more of the other three (Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes) is continual throughout the work.

Rhett Butler is the opportunist, who sees the fall of the South as a way to enrich himself.  He is a social ‘outcast’ who refuses to let an earlier ‘indiscretion’ (at least by society’s standards) ruin his life.  He is imminently practical and often mentions how one can make money during the emergence of a civilization, but also during its dissolution, and that money can be made more quickly during the fall.

(regarding Scarlett’s thoughts of him) “But somehow, unbidden, she had a feeling of respect for Rhett Butler for refusing to marry a girl who was a fool.” – chapter 6 Read the rest of this entry »

Now reading: Gone With the Wind

This will be my fourth book in Project: Civil War.  It is a dauntingly long novel, with which I’m sure everyone is familiar.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and, of course, was made into one of the most famous movies of all time. Now, frankly, I don’t give a damn (sorry, that was too easy) about movies per se and I am one of the probably few people who has never seen Gone With the Wind.  I have seen bits and pieces here and there, and have always meant to watch it, but never got around to it (or never had the four hours in a row to spare).

Now that I’m reading the novel, I consider my never having watched the movie a good thing.  I have been shocked, Shocked!  (there’s another famous movie for you) to learn a few things.  A)  Scarlett is only 16 years old at the start of the novel B) she actually got married and had a child with Melanie Hamilton’s brother Charles (who quickly dies, leaving her with child and in mourning)

As of this morning’s one-hour reading session while sipping my Starbucks (Grande Decaf with Hazelnut syrup with no room for cream), I am about 175 pages into the book (my version anyway), which finds Scarlett living in Atlanta, with her sister in law and ‘aunt-in-law’.  Those poor unfortunates assume Scarlett’s depression is due to her dead husband, and not the fact that she has to follow society’s conventions regarding mourning and is not “having any fun.”  Scarlett sees a chance at getting out, though, to help fill in with preparations for some party, and that is where I left her this morning.

I am enjoying the book so far.