I just finished reading Thirteen Moons, the second novel by author Charles Frazier. I came to this novel with high expectations given my appreciation for his first work, Cold Mountain, and Frazier did not disappoint. In fact, I believe this effort may even be better than his first, though the differences in story, and the distance in time between readings could color that assessment.

I enjoy Frazier’s writing. He’s easy to read and he has a gift of making his characters seem real and alive. While he has chosen to base his characters on historical figures, he has used these traits primarily as markers along the way and is quite adept at filling in the details of personality and character.

In Thirteen Moons Frazier again finds his subject in the Mountains–indeed in the same general era, though taking in a broader sweep of time, both before and after the War between the States. Whereas Cold Mountain was a fictional tale inspired by one of Frazier’s Inman ancestors, Thirteen Moons was inspired by the story of William Holland Thomas, the “White Chief of the Cherokee,” but, as Frazier is quick to point out in the author’s note, the main character, Will Cooper “is not William Holland Thomas, though they do share some DNA,” and readers who are familiar with the history of the region should be able to pick out the bits that are more or less based on Thomas’ life.

For me, the great gift of Thirteen Moons is that it provides an interesting narrative overlay of the time period it covers. Certainly it is a work of fiction, and every detail is not historical, but that doesn’t take away from it. Indeed, where it departs, it is probably a benefit. The story follows the life of Will Cooper, a “bound boy” sent into what was then the frontier wilderness of the Southern Appalachians–beyond the white man’s land–to work at a trading post. In so doing it demonstrates in a very effective way the dissonance between the simplistic view of the “outside world,” particularly the government, and the reality of life in the region in all its complexity. But the novel doesn’t achieve this by setting up a sort of “us/them” conflict, it doesn’t say “this is how life is here” or add “and it’s better than where these other folks are,” instead it illustrates abiding and over arching principals through focusing on a particular story.

Above all the novel is a book about identity and mortality. By bringing up the complex question of what defined an Indian–was it blood or adoption etc..–it demonstrates how ill-equipped a society built on rigid color lines was to deal with the realities of human life. Tangled up with this theme of identity, and eventually becoming more predominant, is the theme of mortality. This mortality is not nihilistic however. It might better be called ironic, almost defiant. Everything changes the book confirms, people grow old and die, borders and ownership–such as it is–shift and become ephemeral, but in the midst of all this there is the truth of living–of friendship and love and history and place. Things may change, we may grow old and the world we know may even precede us in passing. But through it all, there is an assurance that life is to be lived and not regretted or fretted over. Indeed, one of the most believable aspects of the book is that while reading it really seems as though one is involved in a conversation with Will Cooper, that this old gentleman is sitting there with you on the porch telling you about his life, warts and all… and the best part of it is that the conversation doesn’t stop when you finish the book…

Another thing I love about Frazier’s writing is the humor he includes. Not to betray too much of the story, there is a wonderful description of John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson in the novel that had me laughing out loud (not the only place):

Jackson and Calhoun had the two most alarming manes of hair I had ever seen on white men. I qualified the judgement in that way because as a boy I knew a few old Indian warriors who still sported coifs from their youth way back in the previous century, styles that involved plucking half ones head with mussel-shell tweezers and letting the other half grow long, festooning random braided locks with colored beads and silver fobs and making part or all of the remainder elevate in spikes with the assistance of bear grease. But in a contest of extravagant hair just among white men, Jackson and Calhoun would have split the prize. they hated each other and yet continued to share their lofty hairstyles, which struck me as having all the features of placing exploding possums on their heads. Of course, they were both from South Carolina and thus given to strange enthusiasms.

Being from North Carolina (as is Frazier) I nearly rolled out of my chair laughing at that–especially the last line. But if you’re not from the South, don’t get any ideas–one thing you should know is that proximity and family ties makes it more like old friends having fun with one another when someone from NC, SC, TN etc.. says something about the other… but if somebody else says it–especially if they’re from the north east… well, that’s not good at all–it’s down right insulting.

All that is to say, Thirteen Moons is a wonderful book, and you should read it. Soon.

Update: The Eastern Band of the Cherokee have some information about Thomas on their web site: