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Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier ISBN: 9780340826638
“Time fades everything. Except desire”
A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is only the second novel by Charles Frazier, his first being the widely acclaimed “Cold Mountain which was not only an International best seller but also won the National Book Award in 1997. ‘Cold Mountain also won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and of course was made into a film as well. I haven’t read ‘Cold Mountain’ but did enjoy the film.
WHAT THE AUTHOR SAYS ABOUT HIS BOOK
This is a novel that is, a work of fiction. “The geography and human history inside these covers have been filtered through my imagination....All historical figures and locations are used fictionally...Will Cooper is not William Holland Thomas although they do share the same DNA. In other words, anyone seeking historical or geographical fact should look elsewhere.” He then lists some reference books he recommends if you are interested in looking into the factual history yourself.
It is many years since I have seen the film “Little Big Man’ but there are similarities to the story. Will Cooper is virtually sold by his aunt and uncle into service as a shopkeeper of a Trade Store in the middle of Indian Territory. Both his parents have died and all his aunt and uncle send him off with is a little money and a young horse called ‘Waverley’. \He has to make his own way there at the tender age of about nine or ten.
On the way he is robbed of everything including the horse but he does mange to win him back through card games against dubious characters. When he arrives at the store it has been neglected for many years and in a terrible state. Will is obviously a bright lad and sorts the store out, sorts the book keeping and also over the years he collects books which he devours with enthusiasm.
Will becomes almost a son to an old Cherokee called ‘Bear’ and this relationship encourages Will to teach himself the law through books. The other relationship which shapes his future is that with Featherstone a part Indian who becomes exceedingly rich and early in the relationship he lends Will many of his books, shares his food and wine and also shares his house with Claire who is the love of Will’s life.
The story is in fact a very tender love story, an adventure story and a story about relationships as well as being quite a philosophical thought provoking read. The story is set at the time when the whites were expanding into Indian Territory, the time of the civil war and then later when the railways moved across the land. This was a time of huge changes in the American landscape and history and Will lives through and tells his life story in a poetic and magical way.
I was drawn into this book from very early on as the author has such as beautiful way of writing. It is not hard to read and yet the prose reads almost like poetry. When ‘Bear‘is contemplating his peoples’ future as the Indians were being encouraged to move westwards or become white in their ways. ”Bear didn’t think he and his people could turn white no matter how hard they tried. But he didn’t much want to try at all. He wondered if you could be said to have survived if at the end you didn’t even recognise yourself or your new life or your homeland. Do you dissipate like a drop of blood in a bucket of milk, or do you persist, a small stone tossed in a rushing river?”
This was just such a really great way of putting the problem and I could almost see the old Indian sitting there thinking of this choice and what to make of it.
Another thing that struck me as I was reading this was the huge distances that Will covered in his travels. We have driven around different states in the USA and covered huge distances which has taken us days driving in a comfortable air conditioned car along good roads. Will makes his way down to Washungton DC to fight the cause of his adopted people. His journey begins with several days riding on horseback to the nearest town with a stage coach, many more days in the stage coach to reach the town that has a railway. “Then flying along in the train for two days at dizzying speeds occasionally approaching twenty miles an hour to the state capital.” They then get onto a river boat and finally reach the eastern shore where they get aboard a sailing ship up the Atlantic to Chesapeake where they board another river boat up the Potomac. I cannot even contemplate the journey and imagine the weeks of travel they must have endured in fairly basic conditions and Will did this and other equally lengthy journeys many times during his life. They were amazing people back in those days, tough and determined.
Will meets various people we have heard of in US history including Davy Crockett whom he spends some time with in Washington, Andrew Jackson whom he refers to as the “Old Possom’ and has little time for. Will had taught himself French and was a bit distressed to find that when he heard it spoken it was nothing like the language he had learned in books. In a discussion with Senator Calhoun about this topic I really laughed at Calhoun’s summary of the French language;
“ .. it was without doubt the nastiest –sounding tongue practiced by known people on the round globe....you couldn’t go far wrong if you pronounced every single word of the language as if it were a child’s euphemism for the private parts.”
I think Frazier just had a perfect way of describing things and this description of an old Indian medicine lady called Granny Squirrel’ cabin I thought was a great example. “Granny Squirrels’ cabin was about the size of a pony stall, and the roof shakes were as mossy as the creek rocks, and it was pressed down into the head of the cove as tight as a tick in the intricate folds of a hound’s ear.”
I bet you can now see the little cabin so perfectly and Will’s description just had the right balance of detail, humour and authenticity in my view.
The parts of the story when Will and Claire are lovers are told in an equally descriptive and poetic way. They are romantic and sensitively handled with just the right touches of erotic and romance. Will and Bear spend many a winter evening feeling sorry for themselves at the loss of love and hoping for the return of their respective loves. As I said this is partly a love story and the on again off again love affair between Claire and will and it complications is fairly central to the story.
I could go on and on with lovely quotations and still not give any of the story away as this is an epic story that is partly the story of westward expansion, partly the story of the Indians being pushed from their land, partly Bear’s life story and centrally Will’s life story which touches on all of these.
The last chapter sort of takes us back to thge start as Will is telling his story. Towards the end he now feels, “ It’s a bad idea to live too long. Few carry it off well.” This is so true. Will philosophises about the fact that in the olden days things didn’t change so fast. The land stayed the same and the older people were wise and could pass on knowledge to the younger generation. “Food was food”, animals didn’t change and “clothes remained clothes”. He finishes off by thinking that; “...we are mistaken to gouge such a deep rift in history that things old men and old women know have become so useless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren.”
This is really a major factor in our lives today as the younger generation know such very different world to those their grandparents grew up in. We have gone through enormous changes in the last twenty years since my own children were born and it does make you wonder if it is all for the good.
WHAT CRITICS HAVE SAID
“The prose is luxurious and it is steeped in US history, but it is the love story that’s the real TUG.” - Alex Heminsley – thelondonpaper
“Its narrative has a thoroughly human scale and informs just as much as it moves and entertains.” -Frank Egerton – The Times
“... the result is a novel whose prose is so carefully wrought that it reads like fragments of a long poem.” -Michael Sheldon – Daily Telegraph
You might have gathered that I loved this book. I do enjoy a good epic story that spans a life time and Charles Frazier has just the right touch of dramatic story teller combined with the most beautiful almost poetic writing. His descriptions are wonderful and the touch of humour brought a smile to my face many times as I was reading.
Once I have seen a film I very rarely go on to read the book but I will certainly look out for ‘Cold Mountain’ as I loved this novel. I hope he writes another soon. I urge you to read this as it is a really great story told in a sensitive and yet gripping way.
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