It is not impossible, merely difficult, for the author of a highly praised first novel to produce a second worthy of its predecessor.  Perhaps paucity of imagination is responsible for the failure of many second novels; the writer emptied his quiver the first time or got lucky with a flash-in-the-pan and should not have tried again.  In Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier shows that he had at least one more novel in him after Cold Mountain, which won the National Book Award in 1997 and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was on the New York Times best-seller list, and was the basis for a film.  Readers who liked Cold Mountain may admire this new work equally; those less pleased are unlikely to be won over.

Thirteen Moons, a first-person retrospective account, relates the life of a Southern white man, Will Cooper, from his adolescence early in the 19th century until very old age in the 20th.  The main historical framework is consonant with factual accounts.  Frazier lists sources in a brief note, acknowledging that, though the work is fiction, the narrator bears some resemblance to one William Holland Thomas, and a figure called Charley, to the historical Tsali.  Like Cooper, the novel is tough and sinewy.  As such, it is a man’s novel but will appeal also to women who like men’s novels.  The setting is the southern Appalachians, chiefly North Carolina (recognizable but named rarely); occasionally, the action moves to Charleston, Washington City, and westward.  The story is not Cooper’s alone; he is connected to the Cherokee Indians, both inside the Nation and on its fringes, and to the mixed-bloods living near them.

An orphan, Will Cooper is bound over legally at age 12 by his uncle and aunt (who also steal his land) to an old tradesman needing an assistant to run his trade post on the edge of Cherokee territory.  Will’s choice is to accept his indenture, not escape.  The learning he acquired in school stands him in good stead, and his hard work and talents enable him to do well for his master.  At the latter’s death, Will buys his freedom and the store from the heir, then acquires other stores and considerable land.  He teaches himself the law, argues cases, and becomes particularly adept in matters of land titles.  He also acquires an adoptive father, Bear, a Cherokee living outside Indian territory.  Bear’s considerable knowledge of the world beyond, acquired through the Cherokee syllabary and with Cooper’s assistance and encouragement, might be considered unusual, but, contrary to some critics’ implications, neither it nor his superior practical skills and sage advice make him an unconvincing cardboard character.  Cooper’s loyalty to Bear and his clan is strong.  His devotion goes also to a woman named Claire, whom he meets first when, a mere girl, she is thrust into his life bizarrely by the wealthy mixed-blood Featherstone.  Her story runs close to his without joining it permanently.  Featherstone is a negative father figure, a rival whom Will both respects and resents.  Will’s life journey is bound up with all three of these figures and with the entire tribe, whose spokesman he becomes in their vain struggle to avoid the Removal and what would be called the Trail of Tears.

Thus, the book touches squarely on the awful topics appropriated and distorted by the multiculturalists.  Frazier’s approach does not, however, involve tropistic obeisance to contemporary dogmas of white guilt, native superiority, and so on.  His is an historical novel, directed toward presenting the 19th century as lived experience and eschewing today’s commonplaces as inadequate for interpreting the past.  Identity, moreover, is not a simple thing, as Cooper observes.  When Cooper assesses blame, it is judicious, and, if his view is that the Indians are generally victims of the whites who decide their fate, the judgment is founded on his observations and experiences and made dispassionately.  Violence has been exerted on many peoples, he notes; Cherokees and Creeks fought brutally long before Europeans arrived, and Appalachian Scots still lament Culloden.  Will acknowledges that he, too, has failed his fellow men—by owning black slaves, for instance.  The choice is often between two wrongs: To prevent a worse outcome, Bear and Cooper help hunt down some fugitive Indians, whose story ends very badly.  Frazier views the question of Yankees through the lens of the unreconstructed.  Will scorns Northerners before the war—and even more afterward—for their single-minded greed, exploitation of the hapless, and oppression of the defeated.  Though his censure of Reconstruction will be viewed by some as tendentious, the cruelty and moral depravity of so many who decided the fate of the region and profited unduly from it are demonstrable.

As a consequence of his position in Bear’s clan, Cooper goes to Washington as a lobbyist, later as a senator.  The federal city, where the principal forces are money and power (each begetting the other), honesty is almost unknown, and corruption is everywhere, is not without resemblance (minus the mud in the streets) to today’s capital.  Andrew Jackson’s campaign to deport the Cherokees from the Nation rivals recent federal manipulations as a piece of strong arming.  Despite well-founded arguments made by Cooper and others, Jackson’s will prevails, and even a Supreme Court decision favoring the Indians is useless.  Whereas his efforts on behalf of the Nation are futile, Will defends successfully the rights of Bear and his clan to remain in the mountains because, thanks to him, their privately held land is protected by valid deeds.  His difficult decision not to follow Claire when she goes into exile with Featherstone is not the idealistic act of a knight errant (although he does read the medieval Knight of the Cart) but that of a man bending to circumstance, meeting a greater need than his own and hers.

Frazier has a vigorous style, its energy arising from a blend of short and long sentences, pithiness in expression, variety in syntax, lexical richness, apt metaphors, and directness of speech and thought.  Within the principal story are countless other tales and anecdotes, which are colorful, revealing, well recounted.  There is clearly an attempt to recreate something of 19th-century Southern speech and written prose (letters and reports), illustrating variously coarseness and refinement, even erudition.  (Many men and women then were readers and looked upon great authors as models, not nuisances or oppressors.)  In such a literate work, it is unfortunate to find bits of today’s diction (“down side”) and errors and inconsistencies in the narrator’s usage and grammar (as far as used as a preposition and the colloquial use of like as a conjunction, though, elsewhere, as if appears, followed by the subjunctive).  Perhaps Frazier wished to avoid the appearance of elitism; perhaps he wrote hastily and the editorial staff missed lapses or forced popular usage upon the text, for the expected mass audience.  Random House is ultimately to be faulted.

Unlike blasé minimalist fiction, slick suburban stories, and the cheap filth so abundant in American publishing now, Thirteen Moons has both breadth and depth worthy of thoughtful readers; it is literary, while not affected, and often exposes the grain of the human condition.  Its plot features can draw in those desiring a good story.  If fiction may legitimately aim to evoke a previous period, even with inevitable shortcomings in understanding and execution, one must acknowledge the achievement here.  All such historical fiction tends to the romantic.  Wishing not to distort the past by idealizing it, Cooper declines to “look back at Bear’s people from the perspective of this modern world and see them as changeless and pure, authentic people in ways impossible for anybody to be anymore.”  Yet he cannot avoid feeling regret for his earlier years and for ways, people, and wilderness now gone.  The nostalgia that informs the entire work is appropriate.  Good fiction is a way of knowing, for author and readers—in this case, offering experience of the past and the wise reflection that America was once, and could have been, a better place.


[Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier (New York: Random House) 424 pp., $26.95]