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Cold Mountain

Charles Frazier

the color of despair; verbs, all of them tiring

the ground beneath her hands

like any other thing, a gift; ashes of roses

Summary: the color of despair

Inman has been marching for days but is still near the hospital. He has dealt with the perils of bad weather, vicious dogs, and the threat of the Home Guard. Three men set upon Inman when he stops at a crossroads settlement to buy provisions. Inman steals a smith’s scythe and beats all three before escaping into the woods. He chants the words of a spell Swimmer taught him. The words remind him of Monroe’s sermon on Emerson and his discussion of why man was born to die. Inman heard that sermon the day he met Ada.

Inman remembers how he saw Ada in church and how he longed to touch the groove of her neck exposed by her hairstyle. A group of bachelors hung around after the service daring each other to talk to her. Finally, Inman persuaded Sally Swanger to introduce him. Their conversation was brief and awkward, although Inman surprised Ada by correctly constructing a simile.

Inman moves out of the pinewoods and follows the river. He thinks about becoming a hermit and living with Ada in the mountains to ward off despair. Inman reaches a ferry crossing and shouts across. A figure appears and uses a canoe to reach Inman. The rower is a young dark-haired girl who identifies the river as the “mighty” Cape Fear. Inman agrees to pay her twenty dollars for his ride, although the sign says five, because she is saving up to buy a horse and saddle on which to ride away. While they are paddling upstream, the three townsmen appear with several other men and start shooting at Inman. Inman and the girl jump into the river and use the sinking canoe for shelter and flow downstream, avoiding the men, who cannot see them in the dark. When they reach the riverbank, Inman pays for the damaged canoe, and the girl gives him directions to roads heading west.

Summary: verbs, all of them tiring

Ruby goes home to gather her belongings. She returns to Black Cove and makes an inventory of what needs to be done. Ruby decides that she and Ada will raise pigs, sell cider, and grow tobacco, among other things. She is pleased that Ada has no money since she distrusts it and is used to bartering goods. Ruby instructs Ada to choose either a piano or a cabriolet as an inessential item to be sold in order to support them through the winter. Ada chooses to barter the piano. Ruby barters it to a townsperson, Old Jones, for a sow, sheep, cabbages, and other goods. Watching it leave, Ada is reminded of a party Monroe threw the last Christmas before the war.

Inman arrived late the night of the party. Ada was shocked to find him drying the rain off his clothes in the kitchen. She had drunk too much champagne and found herself sitting in his lap. They did not talk much, but Ada remembers his damp wool smell and her feeling of contentment before she returned to play the piano in the parlor.

Ada rouses herself to search the basement for champagne. Instead of wine, she finds a sack of green coffee beans. The women stay up all night drinking coffee and talking. The next day Ruby barters the beans for chickens, vegetables, and salt. Ruby reiterates that she does not want to be treated like a servant and encourages Ada to share the work. The women settle into a domestic routine. In the evenings, Ada reads Greek tales out loud to instruct Ruby, beginning with Homer.

After dark, Ruby shares her life story with Ada. She relates that she never knew her mother and lived in a cabin with her “ne’er-do-well” father, Stobrod Thewes. Ruby was forced to be self-sufficient, as Stobrod left her for days at a time to “hunt” or party. One afternoon when Ruby was out foraging for food, she caught her dress on a briar and had to spend the night alone in the woods. Although she was only four, she heard a voice that made her feel watched over. Stobrod enlisted during the first days of the war, but his daughter has no idea what happened to him. Ruby believes that she is twenty-one years old but has no means of verification.

Analysis: the color of despair; verbs, all of them tiring

As in the rest of the novel, in these two chapters, Frazier uses lyrical language to evoke the period and the setting. He does not write with the distant prose of a modern author. Inman describes the river as a “shit-brown clog” to his passage and exclaims “Shitfire” when he is attacked. Frazier’s vocabulary—including terms such as “windage” and “grey tarboosh”—accords with Inman’s perspective in the Southern states during the Civil War.

Inman crosses the first of many boundaries he will encounter, the Cape Fear. The river symbolizes movement and direction that reflects Inman’s determination to return home. Inman crosses this river, leaving his violent acts behind. The reappearance of the three townsmen implies that Inman’s past will catch up with him. The author suggests that Inman’s progression cannot be strictly linear, as his journey across country draws out old memories and new hopes. Inman’s mind turns to events of the past (the day he met Ada) just as he turns into the woods to avoid the townspeople and has to flow downstream to avoid getting shot. Even at this early stage, Inman recognizes that his journey will be “the axle of [his] life.” This metaphor is ambiguous, for Inman could be alluding to the journey as a turning point, a pinnacle of achievement, or as a moment of revelation. In any case, Frazier develops his theme of pilgrimage in this chapter as a certain process leading towards uncertain ends. Inman is seeking convergence, but how he will find it, and with whom, has yet to be determined.

The next chapter shows Ada struggling to make sense of herself. She is surprised that living could be such a “tiresome business,” but at least she is now required to do something that gives her life purpose. Ruby takes on a more defined role, as she makes plans and provisions for the winter. Ruby and Ada’s efforts to ensure that they will survive the winter makes clear that food is a central concern of the novel. As a character, Ruby personifies many ideas about nature and the free soul that the author explores in Ada’s experiences in “the ground beneath her hands.” Ruby’s experience in the woods as a young girl has tied her to the landscape in an indefinable way. Her insistence on sharing the farm work with Ada results from her awareness of the harmonies of nature, in which each element may be taken as part of a whole. The author returns to the broader theme of patterns, particularly their relation to meaning and to connecting past, present, and future at many points in the novel.

It is significant that Ada reads the Odyssey to Ruby. Homer’s epic story of Odysseus’s perilous pilgrimage shares many thematic and structural similarities with Cold Mountain. Events in Frazier’s novel, such as Inman crossing Cape Fear, suggest that it parallels the Odyssey. Essentially, however, it is Inman’s overwhelming sense of homesickness and loneliness, rather than similarities of plot structure, that links the two texts.

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