Review

Thirteen Moons

by Charles Frazier



In Will Cooper, Charles Frazier has brought to life a narrator and
protagonist whose life story gathers many of the forces that shaped
our nation in the 19th century: greed, ambition, shrewd
intelligence, romance and racism. THIRTEEN MOONS manages to be both
a crowd pleaser and an historical illumination, all in one nearly
century-spanning novel.

The book opens with Will an old man, awaiting his final journey to
the Nightland, "where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to
travel." But before he goes, this lifelong writer and frontier hero
wishes to dispel a few myths by sharing his own story, and he
reaches back into his boyhood to begin. Sold into bondage as a
12-year-old orphan, Will follows his uncle's map west into the
"blank space" of the Indian territories, to run a trading post for
his master. But not before acquiring a little Latin, a working
knowledge of poker and an unquenchable taste for books, all of
which stand him in good stead in his future life as capitalist,
country lawyer and devoted lover of Claire, a mixed-breed girl he
possesses for one shining young summer and loves until he
dies.

Trading furs and ginseng roots with local Indians for pots and
whiskey, he quickly learns the Cherokee language, and earns the
affection of Bear, the chief. Despite Will's great love for Bear,
he is unsentimental about the Indian way of life in the early
1800s, when he was young: "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."

Despite his white skin, Will regards himself as Cherokee from the
time Bear adopts him into his clan. Over the years it becomes clear
from the proliferating forts that the US government is intent on
moving the Indians even farther west. Wealthy Indians and
part-Indians (like Claire and her protector Featherstone) leave
with their slaves and property, but many of the dirt farmers stay
until they are literally hunted down. Will is caught between his
allegiance to Bear and his clan, who "legally" own land, and the
rest of the Nation, being dismantled to accommodate new white
settlers. In 1938, the summer of the infamous Trail of Tears, Will
must choose between the interests of his own clan and the rights of
other Indians he has known all his life.

Intriguing as the plot is, it's the writing that seduces. Frazier,
through Will, makes the reader see and feel the natural world as
few authors can. Granny Squirrel's cabin "was pressed down into the
head of the cove as tight as a tick in the intricate folds of a
hound's ear." Words long unused lend magic to the prose, as in this
description of the bets in a crucial card game: "There were
doubloons, guineas, livres, pistareens, florins, ducats, Dutch dog
dollars, Scotch marks, Portuguese half joes, Peruvian crossdollars,
and even one old smooth-worn bezant." Who could not cherish the
word "beeves" and the story that encompasses it? There's even a
fabulous duel between Will and the wily Featherstone, and Will
generously provides us three versions of it, so you can pick the
one you like.

This sweeping historical novel has something for nearly everyone.
Romance fans can swoon with Will: "I held her and it was like
falling down a well." History buffs and cynics can wallow in the
already-corrupt political life of Washington City, where Will
travels to try and sway the government's position on relocation: "I
soon saw how the business was done but realized I did not have the
money to do it very well." Wild game aficionados can vicariously
enjoy a meal: "Charley had a pattern to eating a squirrel. He kept
it on its skewer and worked back to front, eating the little hams
first, each by each, and then he went at the body meat, eating it
off the ribs as if it lay in rows like corn kernels. When he
finally got to the head, he broke it off and put it in his mouth
and worked it around for quite some time like he was gumming
tobacco." (Admit it: the 13-year-old boy inside you thinks that's
cool.)

I wasn't surprised to learn this morning that THIRTEEN MOONS has
just landed on the New York Times bestseller list in
position two. Its ambitious scope and fluid prose will delight fans
of Frazier's COLD MOUNTAIN and probably garner many more. Vivid and
sprawling, it leaves you wondering: who will they cast in the
movie?

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 23, 2011

Thirteen Moons
by Charles Frazier

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812967585
  • ISBN-13: 9780812967586