Monday, January 24, 2005

Return to Cold Mountain

Mark G.:

It's amazing what you can find on the web.

Now and again I'll run a web search of my name, just to see what's out there. The most prominent hits are usually to my own web sites, followed by a long string of sites selling one or more of my books. That's to be expected. But once in a while I find stuff I never knew was there.

Case in point: it turns out that my appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation over seven years ago is still accessible. (I didn't know it was accessible in the first place.) You can listen online. You can also order a transcript for $4.95, though I must be the first person in history to do that. Incredible.

It happened this way. One day in early December I got a call from the producer of Talk of the Nation. Their next "Book Club of the Air" segment would feature Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's amazing debut novel, which had just won the National Book Award. They wanted a Civil War historian to come on the show, comment on the book, and help lead the discussion.

Why me? Because someone like James McPherson had recommended me? Because I'd won the Lincoln Prize? Nope. I was simply the first Civil War historian she happened to reach who had a pleasant phone voice.

As it happened, on the day of the show I was visiting friends in northern Virginia. So we didn't need the producer's original idea of having me do my part from the local NPR radio affilate. I was already near the main studio in Washington, so I just took the metro into town and did the show right there.

Ray Suarez was the host back then. He had a relaxed, friendly style that put me instantly at ease. A few quick lessons about the routine we'd follow and the show got rolling. Ray introduced the book, played a tape of Charles Frazier reading an excerpt, then introduced me. I, in turn, gave a quick five-minute precis of the novel:

SUAREZ: Why don't you get it started. An important piece of fiction?

GRIMSLEY: I think so. I think it's a remarkable debut novel. It's both a critical and market success. Frazier, I guess, waited 46 years to become an overnight success. That's now old he is. Like me, Frazier is a native of North Carolina and the novel is set in North Carolina in the late summer and autumn of 1864.

I'm a Civil War historian, so let me kind of tell you what's going on elsewhere while the action of the novel takes place.

Robert E. Lee's army is pinned by Grant in the Richmond- Petersburg trenches. In September of 1864, Atlanta is going to fall. Lincoln will be reelected in November of 1864, and that same month, William T. Sherman will begin his desolating march across Georgia, the march to the sea.

Almost none of this action though intrudes into the novel which is essentially the story of two people -- Inman a confederate deserter, and Ada, a lonely young woman who has recently lost her sole surviving parent, her father.

They're not quite lovers. They were on the verge of becoming lovers perhaps when the war broke out. But they have not seen each in four long years.

The theme of the novel is redemption and growth. Inman is journeying to Cold Mountain to save what remains of his soul. That's the redemption theme. And Ada is learning to transcend her privileged but limited past -- that's the growth theme.

There is a remarkable array of other characters, especially Ruby and Stobrod and Teague that you can talk about, and a number of wonderful issues -- desertion, the grueling "inside war," guerrilla war, atrocity, the spiritual costs of war, psychological injury.

And looming symbolically above it all, the timelessness of the mountains, especially Cold Mountain, the home of Ada and the goal of Inman.
You can hear the full program here. It was actually a very good exchange. The callers were perceptive and midway through we were joined by Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. Shay had recently published Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1995).

As the title implies, he thought the Iliad offered a good lens through which to view the conditions that might generate PTSD in a soldier. He was then at work on a second book, this one dealing with recovery from PTSD, which used The Odyssey for insights into the journey of healing. Shay thought Inman, the war-weary Confederate soldier who is the novel's main character, displayed some of the features of PTSD. His literal journey in the novel--Cold Mountain has loose but unmistakable parallels with The Odyssey--resembled aspects the metaphorical journey of healing as Shay depicted it.