'Thirteen Moons' in the life of one man

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 24, 2006

By Deirdre Parker Smith

Salisbury Post

Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons” made me sad.

Sad that the days of open land, soaring trees, quiet roads and clean rivers are gone.

Sad and furious at what the white man did to the Indians during the Removal, and continues to do to Native Americans.

Sad Will Cooper’s story had to end.

But “Thirteen Moons,” despite what some critics have said, is a great read. It’s worth the price just to get to know Will and hear his voice tell the life story of a place and a people.

Frazier, author of the outrageously popular “Cold Mountain,” faced impossible expectations. He could not equal or better that epic. But this is a perfectly enjoyable book, a ramble into the past, full of sound and scent and weather.

Will’s beginning is remarkable, when, at 12, he is sent out with a key, a horse and a map to the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He’s bound to a trading post owner who dies early on, leaving Will on his own to become a clever businessman, lawyer, property owner and senator.

In old age, some call him colonel or chief. He leads a platoon of Cherokee into battle during the Civil War. Bear, among the last of the great Cherokee hunters, adopts Will into his clan, and in return for Bear’s devotion, Will becomes the “white chief” who tries to save the Cherokee from removal and keep their land from the government.

Frazier lets Will tell the tumultuous history of the Cherokee and white man in the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies. The blood is so mixed that no one can claim purity of anything, Indian or Scotsman. They live together in vast, steep, thick-forested lands full of stories and legends.

Will keeps journals throughout his life, “telling exactly what happened to me all the way back to my boyhood. Every date and event remotely worth noting. Enough ink to fill a washtub. Scratched out with every manner of bird quill and steel nib into one long looping line of script that runs a lifetime.”

That lifetime crosses centuries, from the days before the Civil War to the times of railroads and telephones.

Running through it all is Will’s great, unending love for Claire. Claire is tied to the other dominant male in Will’s life, Featherstone, a mix of Indian and Scotsman who’s fond of blazing pistols, vicious card games and his vast land.

Will laments that he’s more like Featherstone, a man he would have loved to kill, than Bear. More passion and less wisdom.

Will’s devotion to Claire is salvation and ruination, all in one, a bittersweet obsession over decades.

The devotion leads to a duel with Featherstone, which Will tells through the accounts of those witnesses present.

But always, he finds grounding with Bear, wrapped up in skins around his fire during the howling cold of January, trading incredible stories.

Many of those stories come from Will’s wide-ranging reading tastes and it’s that love of books that educates him — even in the law which he manipulates to protect his people.

Filled with fascinating episodes, “Thirteen Moons” brings something new in each chapter. Frazier’s descriptive writing brings readers into the atmosphere of those remote mountains, into the damp springs, freezing winters and withering summers.

Entering the story is like walking through a door into the past. It was a simpler time, it was a more complex time. People were closer to the land, and each other. Little changed until everything changed.

The critics have called the book more like a master’s thesis than a novel or criticized its view of history.

But this is a man telling a story, just like those long-ago Cherokees did, night after night, keeping memories alive.

“Thirteen Moons” is not an epic of monumental proportions. It’s an account of one man who holds a lifelong grudge against Andrew Jackson for his policies and mourns the early death of his friend Davy Crockett. Will, it seems, has met all the major figures of the time, as he travels back and forth to Washington City to fight for land for his people, even as armies move in to take them away, dead or alive.

Will does not tell the worst of times, does not recount every removal battle in gory detail, but what he tells, especially the sacrifice of Indian Charley, is often heartbreaking. Given a choice between losing the land of Bear’s people or hunting down an Indian family who has killed soldiers, Will becomes the predator whose prey haunts his mind for a long time.

“Thirteen Moons” doesn’t have much good to say about the U.S. government, even though Will learns how to trick it, at least for a while.

The one thing that haunts him throughout his life is Claire, a woman who will not be bound. Their intense encounters weave through this big story, even to the end.

As incredible and vast as Will’s success becomes, his fall is equally impressive. But not complete. His redemption, the railroad, is an object that changes the world forever, and provides a diversion in old age.

As he nears the final years of his long, long, life, he laments, “Does overwhelming change, the annihilation of all you know, create an intensity of memory that would not have existed otherwise? When all you know is lost and gone forever, does it become sweeter in the mind? Does it make you want to let go or hold on even tighter?”

Frazier’s lovely writing, Will’s character, the places they tell us about, make “Thirteen Moons” a book to savor and share.

Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or dp1@salisburypost.com.