A! Magazine for the Arts

Gloria Oster teaches English at King College and is a member of the Editorial Committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

Gloria Oster teaches English at King College and is a member of the Editorial Committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

Book Review: Thirteen Moons Questions the Meaning of Progress

November 21, 2006

Teachers and parents know better than to compare one sibling to another. Avoiding such a practice is almost humanly impossible. The same might be said about comparing two works by the same author. The astounding and deserved success of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" would naturally be a hard act to follow, all the more stunning because it was his first novel. The world has greeted "Cold Mountai"n as a brilliant offspring of Frazier's imagination while his second novel, "Thirteen Moons" is a bright but less captivating offspring.

For readers of our region, "Thirteen Moons" will hold a particular interest because of its setting. The establishment of the Eastern band of the Cherokee after Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal to Oklahoma occupies the heart of the plot. For those who have made the short trip across the mountain to Cherokee, North Carolina, to attend the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, some of the story will seem more familiar than not. Frazier acknowledges his debt to the Museum of the Cherokee and advises that his readers will see vestiges of important people involved in the Removal in his story.

Frazier's first person narrator is Will Cooper, an orphan who is indentured to a merchant in the foothills of North Carolina. Eventually he is adopted by Bear, a Cherokee chief, and learns the syllabary of the Cherokee language. Cooper reads every book he can get his hands on, becomes a lawyer, and seamlessly moves in and out of "The Nation," Cherokee-occupied land, and the world of the white man. He tells his story from the perspective of old age, having lived most of the 19th century and into the 20th.

Cooper's life brims with passion and danger. His journeys afford the reader a view of America from "Washington City," where Cooper lobbies for the Cherokee, to the reservation in Oklahoma, where he travels to catch only a glimpse of his beloved Claire, a part-Cherokee married to a wealthy Cherokee named Featherstone. From the Civil War to the coming of the railroad and electricity to the southern Appalachians, Cooper treats the reader to a view of history and a philosophy of life that define him as "a man for all seasons."

Frazier's use of imagery to convey theme is as apparent in "Thirteen Moons" as in "Cold Mountain." A primary theme of the novel explores the nature of time and progress. Time in the modern world is linear, moving relentlessly forward, bringing change defined as progress. Cooper's life, and the historical events he relates, reinforces this notion. In contrast, to the Cherokee, time is cyclical, moving predictably from season to season, from moon to moon. Frazier best uses the imagery to reinforce the character of Cooper, as life is filtered through his eyes, producing the ideas that resonate thematically throughout the work. Because of Cooper's grounding in both worlds, he is keenly aware of the contrast. Typical of his poetic bent is this declaration of time and aging:

"Alarming, really, how all the wheels of the world-the days and nights, the Thirteen moons, the four seasons, and the great singular round of the year itself - begins spinning faster and faster the closer we get to the Nightland. We're called to it and it pulls us. And the weaker we become, the harder and faster it pulls."

"Thirteen Moons" is a thoughtful novel about how a character journeys into a changing world. "Cold Mountain," conversely, presents a character attempting to journey to a memory of the past. Inman's journey toward "Cold Mountain" ends badly. Cooper's, on the other hand, finds him an old man sitting on his front porch. The return to "Cold Mountain" and the purity of Inman's mind and heart strike an archetypal chord in most readers. His poignant desire to regain an idyllic existence, one that pre-existed the horrors of the Civil War, mirrors the nostalgia in us all. Cooper is tainted by modernity, but not unknowingly so. He is fully aware of his paradise lost and realistically accepts the inevitability of it.

The intensity of emotion in "Cold Mountain" is not duplicated in "Thirteen Moons." But strangely, in some ways, we mourn the life of Cooper just as we mourn the death of Inman. Although regretful of what Inman never experiences, we witness Cooper's losses brought on by time's passing.

"Thirteen Moons" is a novel that reminds us of the sad truth about ourselves and the nature of the world we live in. Perhaps that is why, to some, "Thirteen Moons" is the lesser of Frazier's two offspring.