Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Thirteen Moons

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
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it was amazing

Sometimes when driving while listening to an audiobook, I have found that the complexity of the narrative, in combination with the challenges of staying alive on the freeway, obliged me to play a CD more than once. With Thirteen Moons, I replayed the first disc simply for the pleasure of listening to Will Patton declaim that luscious prose. I also went to the library for a print copy of the book, to be sure and get as much out of the work as possible.

It's the story of Will Cooper, who begins life very early in the 19th century as an orphan. Sold into bondage by his aunt and uncle, he travels into the border region between an unidentified southern state and uncharted Cherokee territory, there to run a trading post (taking in animal hides and ginseng in exchange for fabric and plow points). He comes of age under the influence of two surrogate father-figures, a full-blood Cherokee named Bear and a treacherous rascal named Featherstone. He finds the love of his life in a girl who already has a complicated relationship with Featherstone. He purchases his own freedom, educates himself through close study of literature and the law, and later travels to Washington in hopes of preserving some vestige of Cherokee rights and land from advancing white civilization. Along the way he meets well known historical figures like Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett (and no doubt others I failed to recognize). He grows old matching wits with various government functionaries, rising to elected office, and even participating in a few skirmishes of the Civil War. He recounts all this in an age of horseless carriages and primitive phonograph machines, observing that "it's a bad idea to live too long. Few carry it off well. But nevertheless, here I am."

On the printed page, passages like the following might not stand out. When spoken, however, they resonate with truth and beauty:

"It is tempting 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. We need Noble Savages for our own purposes. Our happy imaginings about them and the pure world they occupied do us good when incoherent change overwhelms us. But even in those early days when I was first getting to know Bear and his people, I could see that change and brutal loss had been all they had experienced for two centuries ... They were damaged people, and they lived in a broken world like everybody else."

Here's another that caught my ear:

"I rode home late, a wavering inebriate in the saddle, moon and planets and stars layered dimensional and deep in the sky as if arranged on the inside face of a funnel. Waverly skipped sideways at every tree shadow moving in the roadway. It occurred to me that the only times I had ever taken spirits were in the presence of Featherstone, and both times to glorious excess."

Or how about this gem?

"We rode hard down the road, riding double on a fine horse, the river road unspooling flat and sinuous and the wind blowing back Waverly's mane. I looked around and Claire had loosed her hair from its binding, and it too was whipping long behind, and her dress skirt was blowing back, flaring like a comet tail, as if that sweep of hair and skirt was all the effect the resistance of the world could have on us as we streaked through the night in a moment I could not then know was unrepeatable.
As far as I knew, we would go on endless. Youth and night and wild freedom and not one real worry intruding on our thoughts."

Naturally, change does overtake them all. There are further scenes connected with the Removal (remembered today as the Trail of Tears) that are beautifully rendered and heartbreaking at the same time. Frazier handles the material in a way that indicates both substantial background knowledge of the history and great sensitivity for what all this meant for everyone involved, confused Indians and hapless foot soldiers alike. Along the way he also vividly captures details such as entertainments available in cities of that time and steps a successful sojourner might take to remain warm, dry, nourished, and alive in a setting where none of that is at all certain from one day to the next.

Since he does stay alive, he's reduced at the end to musings that remind me very much of things my father said in his own later years. In the past, Cooper says:

"... the physical world remained about the same throughout one's brief life. Animals all the same. Food was food. Clothes remained clothes. ... All that you learned in childhood remained largely in effect lifelong. When you got old and approached death, it was not an unrecognizable world you left, for we had not yet learned how to break it apart. ... All of which may or may not reduce your sadness at leaving the world. Does overwhelming change, the annihilation of all you know, create an intensity of memory that would not have existed otherwise? ... All I can see is that we are mistaken to gouge such a deep rift in history that the things old men and old women know have become so worthless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren."

Regarding the narration, I've noticed this effect with certain other books as well. A reading that's in sync with the mood of a piece can truly enhance prose or dialog. Will Patton is a gifted narrator. I previously admired his delivery of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (and can't help wondering what he would have done with my own story). That said, I did wonder if a voice as youthful as his was best for this account given by an old man looking back over a very long and colorful life.

True, Cooper is much younger during most of the action (a 12-year-old boy at the outset). If considered from the perspective of the character living through these events, the voice works. But the diction is that of an old-timer. Still, if this is a problem it's the only problem I had here (aside from renewed unhappiness over Jackson's picture still being on our currency).

This package of CDs, which dress up both the story and the telling with fetching mood music, is surely the best way to experience Frazier's novel. I thought it was wonderful. I admired his first book, Cold Mountain, when it came out several years ago, but didn't realize until now what a first-rate writer he is. Thirteen Moons might just be the elusive Great American Novel.

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Reading Progress

October 27, 2015 – Started Reading
October 27, 2015 – Shelved
November 3, 2015 – Finished Reading

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