He Talks Too Much
by Jeanne McDonald
Whether he admits it or not, Charles Frazier’s new novel, Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2006) is actually not fiction, but “faction,” a literary style that uses actual people or events as integral parts of a fictional account. In his author’s note, Frazier says—seemingly with tongue in cheek—“Will Cooper [his narrator] is not William Holland Thomas, though they do share some DNA.”
But scholars of the Cherokee Indian Nation know better, especially John R. Finger, a retired University of Tennessee history professor. Finger’s book, The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900 (UT Press, 1984) traces Thomas’s life from the time he was a young man running a general trading store in the mountains until his 1893 death in an insane asylum. Of the sources Frazier cites in his book, Finger’s is probably the most comprehensive of that era as well as the most specific about Thomas’s sympathetic influence in the removal of the Cherokees from their North Carolina reservation.
Structurally, there are numerous parallels between Cooper of Thirteen Moons and Inman of Cold Mountain . Both set out on long, dangerous journeys and experience encounters with all sorts of weird and fascinating people. And in both books, the backdrop is the breathtaking, unspoiled wilderness of the western North Carolina mountains. There is also a strong parallel between the historical Thomas and the fictional Cooper, who works in a general store, studies law on his own, battles to secure permission to allow Cherokees to remain in their territory, serves in the North Carolina Senate, and organizes a band of Cherokee soldiers to fight for the Confederacy. That’s an awful lot of DNA.
Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain , won the National Book Award in 1997, but readers who expect this story to have the same involving appeal might be disappointed. For one thing, Frazier makes his story more opaque by writing it in the first person, a style that demands every aspect of the plot to be witnessed and recounted by that person. This choice severely limits information and results in a book that “tells” rather than “shows.”
The writing is lovely for the most part, but the saga becomes a bit tiresome as the narrator drones on and on. And although some frontier people of means were extremely literate, it doesn’t help that Will, whom Frazier casts as a Renaissance Man, spouts quotations from Homer, Virgil and Cervantes, drinks Tuscan wine (does a general store on an Indian reservation really stock Tuscan wine?), and is fluent in Latin and French. Such aspects of the novel sometimes become a little too precious, particularly in the recounting of a love scene between Will and Claire: “I do remember that we touched each other fairly personally and discussed the weaknesses of Byron’s rhyming in certain stanzas of ‘Don Juan’.” And when Will is challenged to a duel by Featherstone (who, Finger says, represents the acculturated Indian) the two end up missing each other and contesting to “name all the colors the mountains and their foliage are able to take on.”
Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post comments that “Reading Frazier is like sitting by the cracker barrel for hour after hour and listening to an amiable, but impossibly gassy, guy who talks real slow, says ‘I reckon’ a whole lot and never shuts up.”” Actually, what this novel seems to be missing is passion—real passion. Yes, Will cares, but when he witnesses the execution of his Indian friend Charley and his sons (an incident that figures in the drama Unto These Hills ), he seems more distracted than distressed. By 1838, about 16,000 Cherokees had already been forced westward on the Trail of Tears, and others later left Oklahoma and settled on land that William Holland Thomas had bought up with his accumulated wealth. “Those lands bought by Will when the government put reservations lands up for sale,” says Finger, “are the basis of the reservation on which the Eastern Band of the Cherokees still lives.”
Although Frazier gives the “factional” Will a long and basically healthy life, William Holland Thomas probably had tertiary syphilis, possibly contracted from frequenting frontier whorehouses. The disease also might account for his erratic behavior during the Civil War, when he was an avid secessionist and created his own legion of Indians and mountaineers and consequently got into trouble with the federal government.
We cannot discount Frazier’s storytelling talent or his opulent writing style, but Louis Menand, in his New Yorker review, says it best: “[This wordiness] is partly a consequence of letting Cooper serve as his own narrator: He is too fond of his own complexity. He talks too much.”