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"Thirteen Moons": A legendary old witness to how West was "won"
Special to The Seattle Times
Old men tell rich stories. Marilynne Robinson figured this out and spoke through an elderly pastor in her recent best-selling novel, "Gilead." Now Charles Frazier, whose National Book Award-winning debut novel "Cold Mountain" was the fiction hit of 1997, uses an old frontiersman to tell a similarly warm-hearted tale, "Thirteen Moons."
Through the incantatory voice of Will Cooper, Frazier takes us back to the 19th century, when the American creed of manifest destiny mowed down everything and everybody in its path. The 20th century and modernity are being born when Will hangs up his coonskin cap and offers the story of his life, one that mixes romance and politics with the spirit of Daniel Boone.
In lesser hands, this combo could easily implode. But Frazier is a remarkably meticulous and tasteful writer: He gives delightful flavor to the landscape (tree leaves are "squirrel-ear big," and the Mississippi parts the country "like a gash in meat"). He takes us back to a time and place when most homes were humble ("The cabin was set all around with mud and stumps"). Frazier similarly deconstructs the frontier culture: "I judged that being a whiteman here might not be as great an advantage as I generally counted on," Will notes on arriving in Cherokee territory.
Will tells the tale of an emerging nation better than any textbook. Orphaned by accident and disease, he recalls being booted off his aunt and uncle's Georgia farm at age 12 and sent as a "bound boy" — an indentured servant — into the unmapped territory to the west. There, he meets his lifelong love, a girl of mixed ancestry named Claire Featherstone, and the Cherokee leader Bear. Bear's memories of fighting enemy tribes alongside Andrew Jackson harmonize with Will's to underscore the perfidy of what was to come.
"Thirteen Moons" may offer the most sympathetic portrayal of Native American culture since "Dances with Wolves." For example, when Baptists offer to translate the Bible into the Cherokee language, Bear agrees, while wondering "why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long."
Later, Will himself reflects on the tribe's sense of generosity, remarking on how "they found water spiritual even in a land so wet that water is more often a nuisance than anything else."
Yet the story never gets bogged down in political correctness and will keep you reading even after you realize it's a history lesson in disguise. When the U.S. government laid claim to the land of the Cherokees in 1838, members of the tribe were forcibly removed from Georgia and made their way to Oklahoma. This gave a name — the Trail of Tears — to both the event and the route they took, and it is this injustice that "Thirteen Moons" takes on.
Will's allegiance to the Cherokees makes him a legend. Forrest Gump-like, he joins company with such historical luminaries as Davy Crockett and John C. Calhoun. He cashes in his savings to save remnants of the Cherokee Nation. But even with the respect he earns as a Georgia state senator and the money he earns as a man with a golden touch, he's on the wrong side of destiny.
In old age, he wears a cloak of disappointment and a disdain for the journalists who come calling, eager to preserve him under glass as the representation of a bygone era. "History in the making, at least on the personal level, is almost exclusively pathetic," he concludes. But his is not a sad story, just a human one.
After "Cold Mountain," Charles Frazier must have suffered some writer's block, fearing that he wouldn't be able to duplicate that success. Maybe he won't. But "Thirteen Moons" is a worthy successor to the first novel and a highly readable book.
Ellen Emry Heltzel lives and writes in Portland. Her Internet column can be found at www.goodhousekeeping.com/bookbabes.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company