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Charles Frazier – Thirteen Moons

September 24, 2014

76. Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (2006)

Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 20 August 2014
Finished: 05 September 2014

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I was a big fan of Cold Mountain, so when Frazier came out with his second book, I was on board.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 November 2007. (Yeah, so, apparently not that on board, since it sat on my TBR pile for seven years until my book club picked it for its monthly book. Oops.)

Fighting for the old
ways in a changing world is
a losing battle.

Summary: As a twelve-year-old, Will Cooper is sold by his guardians to a man who needs him to run a trading post in the heart of the Cherokee Nation. With little more than the clothes on his back, his horse, and a rough map, he survives the journey there and settles into his duties. Bear, the chief of the local tribe, takes Will under his wing, and eventually adopts him into the tribe. Bear is trying to keep his world and his people together in the midst of a world that seems intent on changing things. Will is shaped by his connection to Bear, and becomes an ally in the fight to keep the land that is connected to them both. But Will is also bound by his love of Claire, the mysterious girl that he first met on the road, who is in the charge of the unpredictably violent Featherstone.

Review: I absolutely loved Cold Mountain, and on reading the description, I should have loved this book as well. I like Frazier’s writing style, and there were lots of elements to this that sounded interesting: civil war, Cherokee culture, the interactions between the Cherokee Nation and white settlers at the time, the Trail of Tears, etc. But unfortunately, this book lost steam about halfway through, and it wound up being kind of a slog to finish.

The book is told from Will’s point of view as an old man, as part autobiography and part reminiscence. The first part of the book, that tells of Will’s growing up, his adoption by Bear, and the first stages of his relationship with Claire, was great. Frazier’s writing is very atmospheric; the southern Appalachian mountains are a character in their own right (maybe even the main character), and I absolutely felt like I was back there. Similarly, Will going about the business of growing up was not particularly dramatic in terms of historical scope, but it was relatable, and interesting in its details, and the details of daily life. However, once Will got to his late 20s or early 30s – about halfway through the book – the scope of the novel got a lot more “sweeping historical events” and a lot less personal, and Will seems to recount his Forrest-Gump-ing through history from a much more distant and less emotional vantage point.

So that was where this novel stopped being enjoyable (if not a fast read; Frazier’s prose is lovely but a little dense at the best of times) and started being a challenge to push through, where it went from personal and relatable to broader but flatter. Overall, I see the themes that Frazier was going for, the idea of change and progress and trying to hold on to what you know and love in a changing world. I also appreciate that this book got me to consider a time period and some issues that I’d never really thought about before (i.e. the Cherokee Nation didn’t exist in a vacuum; there were Cherokee who owned plantations with slaves). But paradoxically, and unfortunately, the more the historical events picked up, the more steam the story itself started to lose. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not as good as Cold Mountain, but may be worth a try if you’re interested in pre-Civil War Native American culture, or really love spending time in Charles Frazier’s mountainous landscape.

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First Line: There is no scatheless rapture.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 5: “Still every bit as anguished and torn about whether to protect his precious honor or to climb onto the shameful cart with the malefic dwarf driver, and perhaps by doing so to save Guinevere, perhaps have Guinevere for his own true love.” – Having or exerting a malignant influence.
    .
  • p. 15: “Slow Water had bet several horses, many skipples of shell corn, a house.” – Three pecks.
    .
  • p. 30: “And also a pair of rush panniers and a leather budget as if someone were preparing for a trip.” – A wallet or small pouch.
    .
  • p. 32: “Then they all rose and went inside, and I figured it was for a quill and inkpot to invoke the law and, as if by sortilege, foretell my life.” – The act or practice of foretelling the future by drawing lots.
    .
  • p. 35: “It was taught by a learned and jolly Manxman, and he called it the Latin Academy.” – A man who is a native or inhabitant of the Isle of Man.
    .
  • p. 50: “There were doubloons, guineas, livres, pistareans, florins, ducats, Dutch dog dollars, Scotch marks, Portuguese half joes, Peruvian crossdollars, and even one old smooth-worn bezant.” – A small silver coin used in America and the West Indies during the 18th century; a medieval Byzantine gold coin.
    .
  • p. 51: “Finally one of the women rose from the pallet on the floor and shoveled hot coals from the hearth into an iron pot and set it under the table and heaped doty wood on the coals to make smoke. Then she went about the motions of letting there be light. She stobbed a long stick in a crack between floorboards and angled it over the table and took strips of pork fat and wrapped them in loose-wove linen rags and tied them to the end of the stick.” – Half-rotten; the noun “stob” is “A short straight piece of wood, such as a stake”, Frazier uses it as a verb to mean “stuck” throughout the book.
    .
  • p. 56: “But overlying that holy fragrance, and at great odds with it, was the clabbered smell of milk and cheese.” – milk that has soured and thickened; curdled milk.
    .
  • p. 62: “Then he told of how they scrugged their bonnets down low on their brows and made a headlong rush at the Angles and Saxons, saying it was exactly as Celts had done against the Romans at Telamon two thousand years before.” – pulled down over the ears in bad weather
    .
  • p. 63: “He dug into a pouch at his paist and turned up a palmful of gunspalls and various coinage, including a George II farthing and a copper elephant halfpenny from the days of the Carolina proprietors.” – a type of gunflint, a piece of flint in a flintlock’s hammer used to strike the spark that ignites the charge.
    .
  • p. 64: “Bolts of gingham and calico, plowpoints, bottles of ink, fiddle strings and fishhooks, packets of steel needles, gunpowder and flints, bar lead and bullet molds, axeheads, blank books and wool blankets, laudanum and coffee beans, pistols and palm-leaf hats and horse fleams.” – a lancet used for letting blood.
    .
  • p. 68: “The teamsters said that some of the ginseng went all the way around the world in sailing ships and was sold to Chinamen, who ate it and believed it made their jimson stand up better.” – clear enough from context.
    .
  • p. 73: “Some tools and farm implements so simple their names rarely contained more than three or four letters. Plow, axe, hoe, adze, froe, maul.” – A cleaving tool having a heavy blade set at right angles to the handle.
    .
  • p. 74: “Two boys shot long cane blowguns at a mark, and the darts fetched up quivering into a shake set up against a fodderstook.” – a number of sheaves set upright in a field to dry with their heads together.
    vb
    .
  • p. 80: “Bear cupped the wet pink-and-blue ropes in his palms, spilled them back inside, and stitched the bleeding belly back together with his kit for patching moccasins, which consisted of whang strips cut thin from a groundhog hide and a fat steel needle blistered with rust.” – A thong or whip of hide or leather.
    .
  • p. 82: “Thirty pounds of baking soda, six iron kettles, a mixed dozen of red and blue and grey strouds, shot and powder, five hoe heads, two plow irons and the associated collars and harness, a keg each of sweet and sour pickles, one slim copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in the Malthus translation.” – A coarse woolen cloth or blanket.
    .
  • p. 99: “All in all, it was a frightening and strange vizard, blank and unreadable and vague.” – a means of disguise; mask; visor
    .
  • p. 119: “On Featherstone’s desk, an amber-tinted jar of glass eyes stared in jumbled sizes and colors, like a schoolboy’s collection of prized marbles, frightening taws.” – A leather whip divided at the end into strips, formerly used to punish children.
    .
  • p. 126: “So I ordered eight red silk scarves of the sheerest quality and a spool of fine silk thread from my Charleston supplier and began drawing designs for a withy basket and drafting a poem suitable for the occasion.” – Made of long flexible twigs.
    .
  • p. 151: “The sky flashed outside the windows, casting brief light across the floor in blue trapezoids partitioned by the black shadows of muntins.” – A strip of wood or metal separating and holding panes of glass in a window.
    .
  • p. 153: “He was half drunk from a bottle of black Barbados rum that he had been nipping at all afternoon to ease the boredom of the journey between his plantation at Valley River and the new capital of the Nation – which was still mostly an empty field and hopeful marks on a plat map.” – A map showing actual or planned features, such as streets and building lots.
    .
  • p. 157: “Finally, after some process of decision that – judging from the changing expressions on his face – could have gone either way, he added a martingale.” – a leather strap running from the girth to the reins or the noseband for the purpose of restricting the movements of the horse’s head.
    .
  • p. 184: “Most of the principal streets were paved with cobbles, so there was always a racket from the metal hoops of carriage wheels clashing against them, and at night the calkins of horseshoes struck sparks off them.” – turned down portion of the heel of a horseshoe, designed to reduce slipping on worn stones or icy surfaces.
    .
  • p. 226: “He scraped at the words with his penknife and then shook pounce on the bad spot and rubbed it with agate and rewrote the colonel’s sentiments accurately.” – A fine powder formerly used to smooth and finish writing paper and soak up ink.
    .
  • p. 273: “Smith watched them and then took a rundlet from his saddlebag and drank a long pull and stoppered it back and put it away in the bag.” – a liquid measure, generally about 15 gallons
    .
  • p. 282: “He probably keeps track of his holdings in arpents.” – ancient French unit of measurement
    .
  • p. 306: “Then I met a black-haired, dusty-skinned family of wandering Melungeons who showed me how to make a dark and fragrant paste of lard and herbs and fish parts, which at least kept the mosquitoes off, and afterward I slept a little better.” – any of a dark-skinned group of people of the Appalachians in E Tennessee, of mixed Indian, White, and Black ancestry
    .
  • p. 400: “He had been their benevolent sachem, their white chief, who had accumulated for their benefit a territory nearly as large as some minor European countries.” – A chief of a Native American tribe or confederation, especially an Algonquian chief.
    .

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2014 9:40 am

    I generally don’t enjoy books set during the Civil War but Cold Mountain got so much buzz, I tried to read it. I never finished it so I probably won’t try this one.

  2. September 27, 2014 10:54 am

    I know a lot of readers who loved Cold Mountain disliked this one. An interesting tidbit about this book is that it had one of the largest advances in recent publishing history after the success of Cold Mountain based just on a proposal. Publishing is just such an interesting business – it’s amazing how you can gamble that much money on something that just doesn’t sell. Previous sales records don’t always promise amazing sales the second time around.

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