the beginning of Charles Frazier's moving first novel, "Cold Mountain," is sunk deep in the ills of war: death, famine, madness and chaos. Inman, a wounded Confederate Army deserter (based on an ancestor of Frazier's), escapes from a military hospital, determined to make his way, on foot, to his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back at Cold Mountain, his prewar sweetheart, Ada Monroe, a city-bred woman left alone and helpless on her late father's farm, is rescued from starvation by Ruby, an indigent girl who shows her how to work the land. Inman and Ada each face trials that can only be surmounted step by step, Inman traveling across a treacherous and violent landscape, and Ada learning, in a world where paper money has lost its value, how to make the necessities of everyday life -- butter, cloth, medicine -- from scratch.
In the first of three biweekly installments of the "Cold Mountain" diary Frazier will contribute to Salon during his book tour, he writes of wanting to capture "old lifeways ... existing in the seams between the two great incompatible powers," traditions now vanished. Those old lifeways had their own slow rhythm, the rhythm of a cow grazed and milked, of butter churned and salted, the rhythm of a journey made one footstep at a time. In the course of "Cold Mountain," Inman and Ada salvage their lifeway little by little, but, as Frazier laments, for us that possibility is now long lost. Only very rarely, as in a miraculous book like "Cold Mountain," can we rediscover a sense of life lived in intimacy with the earth.
The publication of "Cold Mountain" has been greeted with some of the most impressive accolades we've ever seen for a first novel. United Artists recently acquired the film rights for $1.25 million, with Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") scheduled to direct. Frazier's newfound literary success may bring some modern pressures to bear on his own life (the author currently raises horses with his wife in his native North Carolina), but with "Cold Mountain," he's created a work of enduring serenity and, in Ada and Inman, two people whose very modesty makes them majestic.