Lately I had the good fortune to check out the book Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier, from the library. I originally picked the book up for the title, which made me think of Native American lore, and the beautiful cover. Then I noticed the writer’s name, which seemed to ring a bell– I remembered having enjoyed reading Cold Mountain years ago, so I thought I would try this book as well. I’m so glad I did.

Thirteen Moons was better than I expected it to be. The premise is simple, and I thought I would enjoy it for its historical genre as well as the setting in the mountains of North Carolina, but Frazier well exceeded my expectations. The writing is lyrical and patient, and the tale is told in a winding way that reminds me so much of how old Southern men tell stories: somewhat linear but with each anecdote igniting the memory of a related anecdote.

The story is told through a long flashback that begins when the main character and narrator, Will, is sold as a kind of indentured servant by his parents. He is a “bound boy,” obligated through a contract signed by his parents and an old gentleman, to run a mountain trading post which conducts business primarily with the Cherokee who live throughout the woods. This is where he meets Bear, a Cherokee man who becomes his adopted father. Will subsequently finds himself straddling the two cultures and living a colorful life, working as a lawyer, a businessman, and a senator, up into his twilight years. The story unwinds slowly, with a plethora of both lovable and love-to-hate-able characters. A quiet, painful love story is the thread that runs through most of Will’s life, but the book is far from being a romance novel. It is a blend of historical fiction and fictional memoir. The book is not a quick read and it is not meant to be that way– though it lingers, you want it to last even longer, like a glass of good wine.

The language is mesmerizing, and the setting is vividly brought to life, taking on a character of its own. I think it takes a truly gifted writer who can balance setting with character, dialogue, and plot. Equal attention is given to these elements, and while it is indeed long, it is not for the writer simply padding the story with unnecessary details or rambling on. Set in the early through late nineteenth century, the writing skillfully mirrors the pace of a slower world that was not technology-obsessed. Reading it reminded me of the many camping trips I’ve had in the Appalachian Mountains, and it also sparked that blind nostalgia that we sometimes get when reading historical fiction that takes place when our country was “simpler.” Of course I say “simpler” with gritted teeth; issues back then were certainly just we weighty and complicated as they are today, but without modern threats such as nuclear war, suicide bombers, heavy drugs, and the incessant obligation to be connected at every second. I don’t relish the thought of being without some modern conveniences (particularly medicine) but a part of me longs for those days. The narrator makes an excellent point late in the book about how, for hundreds of years, human life was basically the same: you lived your life in pretty much the same way your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and etc. did. However, beginning around the time of Will’s lifetime, individuals’ lives were radically different from generation to generation, and this thought still resonates today.

Bottom line: the best book I have read this year. Frazier is a master.

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