Top critical review
This ain't Homer, but it ain't Bad
on January 27, 2004
Cold Mountain is the kind of pleasant book which one should read if, or when, an easy moderately intelligent entertainment is desired. Charles Frazier's book is less like Homer and more like James Michener -- shorter, with fewer details, and brought up to current sensibilities. Ideally suited for making into a blockbuster movie. IMAGINE THAT!
Written in a slightly elegant, almost poetic tone, the book is not really a story so much as a collection of small vignettes. It has been said that the book is "based on local history and family stories passed down by the author's great great grandfather."
These stories are tenuously connected to a homeward bound Civil War journey made by a Confederate deserter named Inman. The events along the way are mostly dangerous and are more or less interesting with an air of factuality about them. While Inman is having his encounters, his love object, Ada (whom he met about three weeks before going off to war) remains at home on her inherited farm learning to, well, farm; since her preacher father had taught her nothing about crops or animals before he died. Ada is taught farming by her friend Ruby, a forceful and very practical hillbilly. Unlike Inman, Ada changes and grows during the book. Also unlike Inman she never actually faces any real danger. Sure, initially she does not know how to cook or farm, but the food is there to be had. Ada just does not know what to do with it, and would prefer to read books anyway. So, Ruby is quite handy.
Cold Mountain seems almost designed to be inoffensive. So much so, that I wondered if the author was intentionally being "politically correct." All of the bad guys are, in fact, guys -- white guys. Making sure to be fair, some of the bad men are Rebels, others are Yankees. This book is unlikely to be banned anywhere outside of Mecca (oops, maybe I shouldn't have said that!) The violence is not graphic, although there is plenty. Sex is pretty near non-existent and won't even make a twelve year old blush.
The plot is simple. The main characters are not the least bit complex (although a couple of the minor, passing, characters were very interesting. I loved the goat woman!). But predictability is a big problem. I was never surprised. At least a dozen times I knew what was going to happen next. This was especially disappointing in the climax, which I accurately predicted after the first page of the climactic chapter. The ending was something of a mess. Maybe the author was about to miss his deadline or something. The last half dozen pages were the only part that I had to re-read, because the events were not clear.
COLD MOUNTAIN would seem to be an anti-war book. Inman is a deserter because he is sick of war, and thinks it pointless. Yet he kills several people on his way back home. At least one of those killings was purely for revenge. So, apparently he is not a pacifist. But one cannot be sure of anything about this man, because the author provides us very little psychological insight -- and no depth of character, for Inman, or anybody else.
Nonetheless, Cold Mountain is pleasant to read. I have seen a recommendation that the book should be read only one chapter at a time. That way the reader can savor each of Inman's adventures one at a time. Also, concentrate on the author's descriptions of the flora and fauna of North Carolina. He seems to know of what he writes. His knowledge of Civil War history seems similarly solid. (I verified three or four issues, and he was historically accurate in each instance.)
But, don't expect a love story; don't expect surprises, don't expect a happy ending, and don't expect a meditation on the human condition. This book is more entertainment than art. Despite what you might hear, Cold Mountain is not worthy of comparison to Homer's Odyssey.
For those who care about such things, the movie does a pretty good job of being faithful to the book's story line. Of course, the typical liberties were taken - books and movies just aren't the same. More sex is in the movie than in the book (Hollywood is like that, ain't it?)