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Thirteen Moons
by Charles Frazier
Random House Canada
422 pages, $34.95

Charles Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain (1997) sold four million copies worldwide, won the National Book Award in the U.S., and was adapted into a rather good film starring Jude Law, Renée Zellweger and Nicole Kidman in 2003, surprising for a book that legend has it was discovered in a “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. All of that success earned Frazier a whopping US$8 million advance for his next book, which the North Carolina writer took nearly ten years to write. Will Thirteen Moons live up to the hype?
As Thirteen Moons opens, a twelve-year-old orphan named Will Cooper is sent into the wilds of Cherokee territory in western North Carolina to manage a trading post. He learns the Cherokee language, befriends the local Chief, Bear, and is eventually adopted into the tribe. Cooper teaches himself law and becomes a frontier lawyer representing the Cherokees’ interests legally and eventually politically in Washington as the burgeoning United States expands into this rugged territory. Upon Bear’s death, Cooper even becomes Chief. During the Civil War, Colonel Cooper leads a legion of mostly Cherokee soldiers who are the last Confederate soldiers to surrender in North Carolina. In the decades following the war, Cooper becomes bankrupt trying to ensure his Cherokee will not be forced off their ancestral lands.

The fictional Will Cooper is based on a real-life North Carolinian named William Holland Thomas, whom I’d never heard of before reading this book. A little research quickly revealed that Cooper’s exploits mirror those of his historical counterpart quite closely. The only major difference is that in the novel, Will Cooper is romantically obsessed with a woman he can’t have named Claire Featherstone who is married to a wealthy, extravagant landowner. The real-life Thomas married and had children, but Cooper never marries, instead spending much of his adult life wandering. Although he is not necessarily searching for Claire, his travels symbolize his inability to be at home without the only woman he’ll ever love. 

It might sound like pulpy romantic stuff, but just as in Cold Mountain, Frazier handles this archetypal story with a deft hand, never letting it veer too far into melodrama, and tempering the tearjerking with solid historical research that brings the era to life in vivid detail. What I loved about Cold Mountain was that it showed precisely how people lived during the Civil War, right down to what they ate and drank, the clothes they wore, and the books they read (if they were literate), but without letting the weight of research bog down the story. The same can be said for Thirteen Moons, perhaps even more so since its story spans much of the 19th Century, not just the Civil War.

The title refers to the thirteen moons of the lunar calendar, a thread Frazier buries deep within the novel to symbolize the gradual but inexorable passage of time. Instead of blatantly dividing the book into thirteen chapters each emblazoned with a different moon as its title so that no reader could possible miss his point, Frazier mentions the moons—Harvest Moon, Planting Moon, Corn Tassel Moon and so on—at various moments in the book, so quietly that they almost go unnoticed, adding a subtle layer of depth to the story.

Will Cooper is a memorable character with a strong narrative voice—sometimes funny and not completely trustworthy, sometimes heartbreakingly poetic—for whom “memory is about the only intoxicant left.” And in Frazier’s able hands, his life story is intoxicating stuff indeed.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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