Thirteen Moons [Buy Now]

By Charles Frazier
New York: Random House
420 pages

When Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain started flying off bookshelves in 1997, it became much more than a novel. It turned into a cultural touchstone, a piece of publishing news, and, of course, a hot property for movie producers. As a result, almost a decade on, there are more copies of Cold Mountain in print than there were people alive in the United States in 1865, the year Frazier’s story unfolds.

But if there is any doubt that Frazier is an incredibly gifted storyteller and not just a lucky name or a one-hit wonder, it will be put to rest with the publication of Thirteen Moons. Within 10 pages, this long-awaited new novel bears the reader swiftly out of the waking world into its own imagined universe like nothing else published this year.

Once again, the current carrying us is U.S. history, before the Civil War, when Westward expansion was gobbling up Indian country. The hero who paddles us through this period is Will Cooper, an orphan who is sold into indentured servitude. The 12-year-old is handed a map, a key, and a horse to take him to the lip of the Cherokee Nation, where he will run a trading post.

Frazier makes Cooper a literate, empathic soul, and allows him to narrate from the future, when he is very old, rich in memories, and deeply saddened by the state of the world. This narrative device solves several potentially thorny issues. First of all, Frazier doesn’t need to bother with bestowing upon Will a “believable” age-appropriate voice as the book begins, nor does he have to make apologies for Will’s magnetic intelligence.

Most important, Will is allowed to describe the Smoky Mountains as they were then and tell us how they have changed. He can interject, detour, and regret. He can also sketch the land and the Indian people he encountered without seeming as if he’s providing the reader with a history lesson.

This is a wise move, for Frazier is keenly adept at funneling history through Will, from the slow expansion West to the turn of the 20th century, when the automobile, telephone, and railways began to connect a nation stitched together from stolen land. Property emerges as the dominant theme in Will’s story, from the horses he rides to real estate he buys, right down to his first and only real romance.

Will first falls in love with a girl named Claire, whom he wins in a card game, and is obsessed with her the rest of his life. His other close relationship is with Bear, a Cherokee chief who outfoxes the U.S. government by buying plots of Cherokee land so that it cannot be taken from him.

Frazier has clearly done his research, as the details are just right, from the yellow-jacket stew that Bear cooks out on the frontier to the turns of phrase Will uses. When he is sent to what was then called Washington City to represent the Cherokee, for example, Will recalls he was as “green as a barrel of June apples.”

There is humor, too. At one point, Will loses track of his horse and he asks a man if he has seen one named Waverley. “There’s a bay colt around back,” the man replies. “I don’t exactly recall him saying what his name was.”

Ultimately, one of the great surprises in this book is how deftly Will’s love affair with the land and its people illuminates his yearning for Claire. Growing up with Bear, adopting his language, his philosophy, and even his calendar — wherein 13 moons are more important than 12 months — Will absorbs a lesson about love that eludes most of us today.

“We pass through the land almost as briefly as water passes through us,” he muses, “and with no more real claim to possession.” Our claim to our beloved is equally tenuous, this novel teaches, and yet this doesn’t keep it from burning so.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.