by Charles Frazier, © 2006
Published by Random House, 420 pp
Many years ago, this reviewer worked for a summer on the Qualla Boundry, a reservation that is the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. The Eastern Band Cherokee are descendants of the Cherokee who resisted enforced relocation under President Andrew Jackson in 1838-39. These Indians hid out in the hills and valleys (called “coves”) while their brethren were rounded up and herded west to Oklahoma along the infamous “Trail of Tears.” Later, the government set aside some 57,000 acres of North Carolina mountain land for the descendants of the resisters.
During one college vacation, I was employed by an outdoor drama that told how, following the removal, land was purchased on behalf of the Indians (who were not allowed to buy land) by their white friends, most especially by one Will Thomas. Thomas was a self-taught lawyer, legislator, and entrepreneur who was actually adopted into the tribe by Chief Drowning Bear, and eventually became their “White Chief,” appointed to succeed Drowning Bear after his death.
Thomas was an effective voice for his Cherokee, making trips to Raleigh and to Washington on their behalf, but the Civil War brought an end to his successes, and he wound up land-poor and living in an asylum in Raleigh, although he was never legally declared insane. It is said that he spent long days speaking and mumbling in the Cherokee language, which none of his keepers could understand.
Charles Frazier’s new book Thirteen Moons, is not, he tells us, the story of Will Thomas, but rather a novel about an orphan named Will Cooper, although he and Will Thomas “do share some DNA.”
“Some” seems an equivocal word, here, but Frazier is, after all, a novelist (Cold Mountain), and as such is entitled to his fancies. There are certainly differences between the history of Will Thomas and the tale of Will Cooper, but the similarities far outnumber them, and one is left to wonder why Frazier didn’t settle for something like the “true novel” of Capote’s In Cold Blood instead of the semi-fiction here. Perhaps he preferred the odd love story he constructed for Will (the real Will married late in life and was to all appearances happy in his marriage).
The historical parts of the story are soundly researched and told in a straightforward manner. Frazier obviously has done his homework, and knows both his Cherokee and his mountains (he lives near Asheville, NC). Will Cooper is portrayed as living to a very old age (Will Thomas died in 1893, at the age of 88), old enough to experience both automobiles and movies. Unlike Thomas, Frazier’s Will Cooper remains sharp even in his last years, and the book takes the form of a long reminiscence.
As such, it is a fascinating look at nineteenth century mountain life, and an introduction to the place of the Cherokee therein. The characters are lively, especially Will’s beloved, Claire Featherstone. Frazier’s evocation of the agonies caused by Andrew Jackson’s determination to clear Indians from the eastern parts of the United States is insightful and heartbreaking.
The author does, however, have a disturbing tendency to slip into grandiose, self-conscious prose from time to time, nowhere more noticeable than in the opening sentences of the first paragraph. They are enough to give an eager reader pause right from the start. If you’re willing to get past them and embark on a patient pursuit, there are satisfactions to be found in this book.