Many times Bestsellers are simply entertaining novels. There is often little gravity to the material, and they are simply written to sell copies without any true literary merit. Cold Mountain decidedly breaks free of this characterization and is considered by nearly all who read it as a serious piece of literature. Winner of the National book award, it surprised even the publisher with its success, gaining praise from nearly every critic who reviewed the book. Having written no prior novels, Frazier was faced with an arduous task creating an Odyssey-like adventure through the mountains of North Carolina for his protagonist Inman. In the end, the product was a wonderful book worthy of both its critical acclaim, and it's success as a bestseller.
Its tremendous success among the critics resonated through the general public as well, selling over 1 million copies it's first year. Rick Bass, a fellow novelist, said "This novel is so magnificent-in every conceivable aspect, and others previously unimagined--that it occurred to me that the shadow of this book, and the joy I received in reading it, will fall over every other book I ever read. It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one. Cold Mountain is one of the great accomplishments in American literature." Commentary this rich seems over elaborated, however, it falls in line with what nearly every critic says. The New York Times Book Review said, "Charles Frazier's own feeling for the Southern landscape is reverential and beautifully composed. He has written an astonishing first novel, ? The prose is so silky and arch in capturing the stiff speech of the period that the book must have had much unpublished work behind it." The author's manipulation of language is praised for its silkiness, and his story is praised for its beauty. These two aspects are important factors in determining the quality of this book. These are also essential qualities to be considered for The National Book Award, which Cold Mountain won. Several critics showered praise over this novel, pleased with the writing and the plot, as well as the authentic nature of the writing. By authentic nature I am referring to the manner in which Frazier describes his surroundings, and the language used in the story. He uses words particular to that region and identifies plants that only a person familiar with the Appalachian Mountains would know. He also refers to objects that were particular for the time period, lacing his book with so many authentic characterizations, as the New York Times noted, there must have been a great deal of research done before the writing was started. Clay Reynolds a fellow novelist comments that
"The beauty of the prose of this novel, however, defies too much criticism. In both dialogue and narration, Frazier evokes authentic 19th-century vernacular and speech rhythms with such casual ease that it's hard to believe this book was written in the 1990s. Details of costume, tools, weaponry, housewifery and geography are marvelously woven into the story. One feels the weariness of the characters, their hunger and their misery, just as one experiences the depths of their emotions, the extremes of their desperation."
On a more critical note Clay Reynolds noted,
"Also, Frazier's inclusion of the names of so many trees, plants, birds, animals and other elements of woodcraft and naturalistic observation defies credibility. While it's believable that a wild survivalist such as Ruby would have a full knowledge of such things, it strains reality that Inman would be able to identify such a variety of trees and plants, particularly when identifying them is of no particular importance to him or, for that matter, to the story at hand."
Although this is not praise, it elicits an important point. This comment reflects the wealth of facts and knowledge that the author accumulated about this region and what he felt were important enough to put in his book. Having grown up in this region himself, he felt a particular passion towards the area. Although some critics felt Frazier may have overdone the presence of these naturalistic details, these details are another factor that sets Cold Mountain apart from other bestsellers like those of Daniel Steele's or other highly prolific writers for instance. His careful research in determining the actual words and speech and other factors sets this novel in a separate category from many other bestsellers. While Reynolds is harsh on Frazier's naturalistic detail, he congratulates him on his legitimate usage of speech, costumes, tools, and weaponry. This extra effort and time spent on research for his novel is reflected in his writing, producing a work of quality.
The novel takes place in an Era important to all Americans, the Civil War. This period has produced many writings and text about it, however Cold Mountain was considered by Kaye Gibbons to be the best Civil War novel since Michael Sharaa's The Killer Angels. The novel offers an interesting spin on the Civil War, depicting the journey of a War deserter and his struggle to get back home through the Appalachians. At the same time it also tells of a woman and her struggle to survive and make a living. The novels civil war context, and the Odyssian adventure of the main character give the book a serious tone, often important when assessing the overall quality of a book. Not that the book must be serious, but that it must have a serious context or address an issue of meaning. The book offers an interesting look at this era in American History, and a look at the people of a particular region. The Civil War remains a period of intrigue for all Americans, an essential and founding part of our history. Frazier, who is a relative Civil War buff, chose to add a love story and a long adventure to the story, to illustrate more than just the horrors of war.
"I realized that there are two kinds of books about a war: there's an Iliad, about fighting the war, and about the battles and generals, and there's an Odyssey, about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants. Once I decided that I was writing an Odyssey kind of book instead of an Iliad kind of book, I could move forward with it with some sense of happiness."(Frazier, Bookbrowse.com)
The epic scale and foundation of the work add to its greatness as a work, and his use of the Odyssey in correlation with the Civil War seems to grant the novel a certain amount of merit. "I went back and reread the Odyssey and tried not to write parallel scenes or anything like that but just to have a recognition, as I wrote, that that was a literary ancestor of the story."(Frazier, PBS) Frazier's Odyssian parallel gives his book an even deeper sense of literary legitimacy.
Frazier, while never having written any novels prior to Cold Mountain, had published a few other things in conjunction with other writers. He wrote a book on traveling through South America, and one about Accounting. Having been a Professor at NC State, he chose to write his book, and sent of a copy before it was even complete. Shortly thereafter it was picked up and he completed his work. Never imagining his book would receive the acclaim it did, his public persona remains very low profile. He once commented that the only difference he sees since his bestseller is that his phone rings more often now, also comparing himself to a doughnut shop waitress winning the lottery and keeping her job. Although he interviews, and travels to bookstores for readings, he stays very low key and out of the papers. This creates a positive effect because it allows his writing to do all of the talking. Rather than promoting his book, he lets his story captivate readers.
During 1997 when this book was written there was no particular contemporaneous event that would have sparked the popularity of this novel. Although the past few years have been filled with US military intervention, and this is a war novel, the parallel can hardly be made. Neither can be related, because our military action has been nondescript, and Cold Mountain does not really deal with the actual battles of the Civil War.
A great deal of historical and political detail went into the writing of this novel. Frazier admittedly researched a great deal before he even began writing, spending a great deal of time in libraries looking at civil war documents and other pertinent data. One controversy the story brings up in relation to historical data, is the involvement of these mountain communities in the civil war.
"I was interested in why a man like Inman went to this war--why he volunteered. "It wasn't his fight," was my first thought on it--he didn't own slaves and very few people he would have known did. Only about seven or eight percent of people in the southern mountains owned slaves. I think that he, and people like him, were fighting because they thought they we repelling an invasion of their homeland. But what I began to think about the politics of that war was that is was two economic systems--you had this slave/agricultural system in the South and a growing industrial capitalist system in the North, and then you had people like Inman who lived in an older economic system, kind of like subsistence farming. You had people like that in the North and South, and one of the tragedies of the war to me was that those people got caught up, caught in the crossfire of this war. Many of them died fighting somebody else's battle."(Frazier, Book Browse)
Frazier's brings up a controversial point, asking why these people were even involved in this war in the first place. This is a similar argument brought up today when the US gets involved in other countries battles, and heavy questions like these seem important for any novel to be considered a good book. He successfully makes a point without preaching to the reader by addressing issues in the subtle manner. The controversy that the author illustrates fulfills the notion that a good book must address a serious issue.
Currently the movie Cold Mountain is in production, set to release sometime in 2003 or 2004. It has been picked up by Academy Award winning director Anthony Minghella, and is starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zeilweiger. While this has not been released it undoubtedly will have an effect on the sales of Cold Mountain, certainly increasing the copies sold in at least the United States.
Cold Mountain surprised many people when it won the National Book Award, including the author himself. This very selective award is not often won by bestsellers because copies sold do not shape this decision. A book is chosen based on its quality as great writing, and here clearly Cold Mountain pertains. From the critics who all praised the novel, to the general public that found the novel worthy of buying over 1 million copies, Cold Mountain easily fits the criteria of a good book. There is a controversial and meaningful point to the novel, it is well written, and it is a very developed use of language that implies a great deal of work by the author. The novel stayed on the bestseller list for 43 weeks, a substantial amount of time to remain popular. Perhaps it's success can be attributed to the National Book Award, maybe the critical acclaim it received, possibly the interest the public has in a story relating to the Civil War, whatever the reason it remained popular be, there is definite evidence to prove this book is in fact great.