Charles Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain
, was published in 1997 to rave critical and commercial success. Winning the National Book Award, the novel went on to be a best seller and to be made into an Academy Award-winning movie. The novel is set during the US Civil War and is structured along the return from war model of Homer’s epic Odyssey
. It tells the alternating stories of a Confederate Army deserter who faces innumerable hardships in his attempts to get back to his home and to the love of his life, and of the challenges faced by this woman as she attempts to safeguard her home and farm during the war’s devastation.
W.P. Inman is recovering from battle wounds in a Confederate military hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina when he has an epiphany about the futility of the war. He writes a letter to his love, Ada, and then goes AWOL, starting his long trek back home to the town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, in Cold Mountain, Ada is a minister’s daughter who has only recently moved to Black Cove farm from the city of Charleston. She and Inman had a brief but deeply intense relationship before he left for war. When he deserts, he has a confusing vision of a man on a journey. When her father dies, Ada is quickly rendered nearly destitute by her lack of knowledge of farm life. But, just in time, her neighbors send her an ingenious helper – Ruby, a homeless local girl. Together, they fix up the farm; Ruby shows Ada the ropes about survival, and Ada teaches Ruby to read.
Inman’s journey is complicated by the Confederate Home Guard – a military unit that hunts down deserters. As he escapes from them with the help of a girl in a canoe, he encounters Vesey, a fallen preacher. After Inman stops Vesey from murdering his pregnant lover, they fall in together. During their adventures, Vesey causes drunken trouble and sleeps with prostitutes, while Inman hears stories about landowners’ cruelty towards slaves. They help a man named Junior remove a bull that has died in the middle of a creek, blocking the water. However, after a bizarre interlude where Junior drugs Inman and forces him to marry a potentially cannibalistic woman, Junior betrays the men to the Home Guard. In the confrontation, Vesey is shot and killed, while Inman is left for dead though he has only been grazed by the bullet.
On Black Cove farm, Ada offers shelter to a group of people fleeing the Union Army. In town, Ada and Ruby hear about the local Home Guard unit and its leader, the vicious Teague. Walking back, Ada and Ruby tell each other about their families – Ada’s parents had a loving relationship until her mother died in childbirth, while Ruby suffered at the hands of her abusive alcoholic father.
After digging himself out of a shallow grave with the help of passing wild pigs, Inman is helped by a kindly slave who feeds him and draws him a map of the area. Inman goes back to Junior’s house, kills him, and then befriends an old woman who lives in a mountain camp. She tends to his wounds and gives him advice. Wandering away from the camp, Inman is introduced to a desperate widow named Sara. When Sara and her baby are threatened by Union soldiers, Inman kills three of them and then uses his wiles to return the family’s hog – Sara’s only source of food for the winter.
Ruby’s father Stobrod is caught in a trap they had set to figure out who has been stealing their corn. Stobrod claims to be a deserting conscientious objector to the war who now lives in a mountain hideout. Despite her fear and hatred of him, Ruby feeds him and his intellectually disabled friend, Pangle, who repay this by playing the banjo and fiddle. However, the farm doesn’t shield them from the Home Guard. Eventually, Teague and his men find Stobrod and Pangle and shoot them. When Ada and Ruby get to the scene, they find Ruby’s father still alive, and they take him to a nearby abandoned Cherokee village to hide.
Inman finally gets to Black Cove farm, which is empty since everyone is in the Cherokee village. By coincidence, he runs into Ada when she is out hunting turkeys on the mountain. They take some time to reacquaint themselves with each other. It is a joyful reunion, and after a quick wedding ceremony, Inman and Ada have sex and begin to imagine what their future will bring. Ada reassures Ruby that she will always have a home with them at Black Cove. In the next four happy days, they decide that Inman should walk north to surrender to the Union soldiers since it is clear that the war is almost at an end anyway.
However, when they leave the Cherokee village, they run into the Home Guard. There is a horrific shootout, but Inman manages to kill all the guardsmen except one – a young seventeen-year-old boy named Birch. At first, it seems as though Inman will convince Birch to just walk away from the encounter, but it turns out that Birch has been Teague’s right-hand man and protégé – he is just as sadistic as his former boss. Birch shoots and kills Inman.
The novel ends with an epilogue set ten years later. Ada still lives on Black Cove, raising her nine-year-old daughter (she conceived in the Cherokee village). With her live Stobrod, Ruby, Ruby’s husband Reid, and their three sons. In a peaceful scene, the family eats together, and then Stobrod plays his fiddle while Ada reads to the children.