It has been nine years since Charles Frazier’s greatly acclaimed and wildly successful debut, Cold Mountain — a novel read and admired not only by fiction lovers but by readers more given to reading history. Thirteen Moons, his long-awaited second book, is in many respects the natural successor to that triumph, but it is simultaneously a more and less satisfying accomplishment.
Like Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons is structured as a near picaresque — in this case, the tale of a man’s journey through a life, rather than across a landscape — shadowed, throughout, by a thwarted and obsessive romance. Told in the first person, it is the story of Will Cooper, an orphan sold into indentured servitude at the age of 12, a “bound boy” dispatched to a remote trading post on the outskirts of the Cherokee Nation. (He is loosely based on William Holland Thomas, with whom, Frazier acknowledges, Will shares “some DNA.”) Once established in his new home, Will is taken in by the native people, and in particular by a Cherokee chief, Bear, whose charisma and devotion shape Will’s trajectory: He becomes a lawyer, and eventually a landowner, committed to saving his tribe from forced removal to the West. In order to protect his people, he is forced to sacrifice others, and the ambivalence and urgent but doomed necessity of his actions form the moral core of the novel. The other fulcrum of his life is, of course, his sometime lover and the constant object of his desire, a young woman named Claire Featherstone, for whom he will fight a duel, travel hundreds of miles and suffer greatly. Even in his dotage, as he recounts his life story, he is obsessed by telephone calls that he is certain are from his long-lost beloved: “I heard a tiny voice, more like the scraping of crickets than human speech . . . The earpiece hissed. A faint voice said two syllables. I believe it said, It’s Claire.”
This love affair, spanning decades, is, in its material description, beautifully rendered, and yet somehow it fails fully to come to life. This is because Claire — whom Will first encounters as a boy of 12, when he wins her in a card game — remains always a shadowy and mercurial figure, whose motivations are never explained. Why she turns against him, why eventually she returns — we are no more privy to the reasons than is Will himself, who is not prone to introspection on this account, even though he reflects intelligently on other abstract matters, such as aging. There is something willed, indeed, about his passion, as if he were enamored of a mirage.
In a way, this is almost a relief, because the novel is above all a paean to the landscape and the Cherokee traditions that grant significance to Will Cooper’s life. Claire proves almost a distraction from what is strongest in the book. Frazier has more than researched this late-19th-century world, he has fully inhabited it, and he writes more memorably and authoritatively about the Southern mountains and rivers, their flora, fauna and lost inhabitants, than does any other writer I know of: “When I rested at the last mountain gap, it was autumn, drizzle and fog so thick I could hardly see past my horse’s ears . . . The cool damp air smelled of wet growing leaves and rotted dead leaves. A redtail hawk sat in a Fraser fir. It stared my way and shook water out of its feathers. It spread its wings and its tail and it bowed toward me — or lunged, perhaps. I thought there was recognition in the look it gave me . . . I guessed the hawk to be a representative of the mountains themselves, an ambassador charged with greeting me upon my return.”
Food, too, features repeatedly, in Will’s recollections, in elaborate and sensual accounts of meals prepared over open fires or in villages: “There were towns noted for pig cookery, where they dug pits in the ground and built fires in them and let the wood burn down to red coals and then put in the pig and buried fire and carcass together in red clay. When the pig was disinterred the next day, it would be chopped or hand-pulled to shreds and dressed with vinegar and hot peppers and served with salty dollops of cornmeal fried in lard.” “The boys were not cooks. Pretty often, their idea of supper had been to wrap a few strips of bacon around a green stick and hold it over the fire and try to get it brown without lighting it ablaze . . . That night, I cooked the best quail any of them had ever tasted . . . I put pieces of apple and onion inside the birds and cut bacon in little slivers and shoved them between the skin and the breast. I rubbed a mixture of dried sage and salt and red pepper between my palms and let the dust fall over the plucked skins . . .” “We had eaten only biscuits and tea since dawn, and the meal he cooked took hours to complete for he prepared an elaborate stew from a pair of unidentifiable mid-sized game birds with chopped bacon and onions and an entire bottle of red wine and a great fuss about the thickening of the sauce and the roasting of potatoes. The key to the dish, he said, was a long slow meeting between birds and fire and wine.” You almost wish there were a cookbook to accompany the novel.
This profound engagement with the material world is ultimately what moves and abides in the novel. Frazier is only moderately interested in character, and not one of his creations, besides Will, attains the substance of a real human being. He is passionate about the politics underlying his tale — the appalling treatment of native peoples at the hands of Washington bureaucrats — but there is, in this aspect of the book, a dogged and somewhat wearying effort to cover a vast and complicated swath of history. It is in his love of place, and his strikingly astute observation of how people live in their landscape, that Frazier is unparalleled. Oddly, this seems less the talent of a fiction writer than of a superb naturalist and anthropologist.
Readers seeking to find here the sweeping momentum of Cold Mountain, the filmic drive of that novel, will be disappointed: The pleasures afforded here are slower, more intense, rather like those of Will’s stew, cooking for hours over the fire. It isn’t Claire Featherstone who will keep you reading, but Will Cooper himself, a man saved from loneliness not by people but by the natural world around him.
THIRTEEN MOONS | By CHARLES FRAZIER | Random House | 432 pages | $27 hardcover
Claire Messud is the author of, most recently, The Emperor’s Children.