Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thirteen Moons

Charles Frazier and I received our Ph.D. degrees at the University of South Carolina in the same year, 1986, but I do not remember him. His dissertation was The Geography of Possibility: Man in the Landscape in Recent Western Fiction, 257 pages long and including chapters on Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, James Crumley, Barry Holsten Lopez, Elizabeth Tallent and Douglas Unger. He went on to write Cold Mountain, based on the story of his great-great uncle's trek back home from the battlefields of the Civil War. This tale of W.P. Inman won the National Book Award in 1997.
I've just finished Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, this one based loosely on the life of William Holland Thomas, born in 1805, orphaned, and from an early age a precocious proprietor of a store in the Cherokee Nation. Adopted by the Cherokees, he helped some of them retain their land in the midst of the Trail of Tears removal to Oklahoma. As a Colonel, he led a group of Indian recruits in the Civil War, fighting for the Confederates. Frazier's first-person narrator tells his own story from the perspective of old age. Early on, we hear about the characters Featherstone, Bear, and Charley. Much of the novel is devoted to his quest for Claire, with whom he had a torrid affair, but who then left for Oklahoma with Featherstone. Will Cooper, like William Holland Thomas, falls into debt and misfortune in his old age, but unlike the actual Thomas, he does not lapse into mental illness.
William Holland Thomas
"I cannot decide whether it is an illness or a sin, the need to write things down and fix the flowing world in one rigid form. Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they've been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they've passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time. Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final." (Thirteen Moons, page 20)

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