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Thirteen Moons

Thirteen Moons

Rob's review
I finally "read" Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, last year's biggest Native-themed book. (This year's biggest Native-themed book is probably Sherman Alexie's Flight.) The critics mostly got it right, though they didn't always emphasize what I'd emphasize. I'd say the book is great and beautiful in some ways, frustrating and unsatisfying in others.

An excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review gives us the gist of Thirteen Moons:

Frazier's storytelling prowess doesn't falter in this sophomore effort, a bountiful literary panorama again set primarily in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains. The story takes place mostly before the Civil War this time, and it is epic in scope. With pristine prose that's often wry, Frazier brings a rough-and-tumble pioneer past magnificently to life, indicts America with painful bluntness for the betrayal of its native people and recounts a romance rife with sadness. In a departure from Cold Mountain's Inman, Will Cooper narrates his own story in retrospect, beginning with his days as an orphaned, literate "bound boy" who is dispatched to run a musty trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation. ... Over the years, Will—modeled very loosely, Frazier acknowledges, on real-life frontiersman William Holland Thomas—becomes a prosperous merchant, a self-taught lawyer and a state senator; he's adopted by a Cherokee elder and later leads the clan as a white Indian chief; he bears terrible witness to the 1838–1839 Trail of Tears; a quarter-century later, he goes to battle for the Confederacy as a self-anointed colonel, leading a mostly Indian force with a "legion of lawyers and bookkeepers and shop clerks" as officers; as time passes, his life intersects with such figures as Davy Crockett, Sen. John C. Calhoun and President Andrew Jackson. After the Civil War, Will fritters away a fortune through wanderlust, neglect and unquenched longing for his one true love, Claire, a girl he won in a card game when they were both 12, wooed for two erotic summers in his teen years and found again several decades later.The most remarkable thing about Thirteen Moons is its language. There are witty observations and colorful metaphors on every page. It's a kind of folk poetry, as if you combined the homespun charm of Mark Twain with the lyrical music of Walt Whitman. You frequently find yourself stopping and thinking, "Wow, that was a good line. I'd love to write lines like that."

One Amazon.com reviewer offered some examples:

Frazier has a homey but descriptive writing style and I often found myself going back to reread many sentences. In describing his caretaker May, Will observes "Her skin is the color of tanned deerhide, a mixture of several bloods—white and red and black—complex enough to confound those legislators who insist on naming every shade down to the thirty-second fraction." When the Baptists give Bear a Bible, Bear "judged the Bible to be a sound book. Nevertheless, he wondered why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long. He promised that just as soon as white people achieved Christianity, he would recommend it to his own flock."The critics seem to be divided on whether Frazier's language is well-wrought or overly wrought. Perhaps my appreciation was aided by the fact that I didn't actually read Thirteen Moons. Instead, I listened to it on CD. Actor Will Patton voiced Will Cooper's story and his lilting drawl was perfect. If you want to try the book, I recommend this version.

"White Indian" rescues Indians
Will is a classic "white Indian" character. He accomplishes almost everything in the novel himself—does what the Indians couldn't do for themselves. The story is about him first and the Indians second.

I'd say this is problematical, but as noted above, Will's life follows the life of William Holland Thomas, a historical figure I hadn't heard of. I thought Will's achievements—buying enough land to set up a small country in the Appalachians—were hard to swallow, but they apparently happened. Thomas really did most of what the fictional Cooper does.

Frazier's take on Cherokee culture seems reasonably authentic, though perhaps a little broad and superficial. But he's a white author telling the story of Indians through a white protagonist, so this is understandable. The Hopi might say my take on the Hopi characters in PEACE PARTY is equally broad and superficial.

Another Amazon.com reviewer commented on the Cherokee aspects of the book:

I was impressed by how much Frazier got right about Cherokee life during those times, and how well the book was written. While the story end for the main character is dissatisfying, I think that was the point, because that chapter in Cherokee history and in the life of the actual Will Thomas was, to put it mildly, dissatisfying and tragic. But here's something to know about this exemplary author of Thirteen Moons: He worked with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation on parts of his novel, and then turned around and set up a grant to assist the Nation in translating it into the Cherokee syllabary, so that it could be used to teach Cherokee to become fluent in the language. Cherokee itself (particularly the Kituwah dialect) is a language that is in danger of becoming extinct, and is an integral part of Cherokee identity. To know one's language is to more firmly be grounded in one's identity. Anyway, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC, central to the Qualla Boundary of which Fraizer writes has translated copies of his chapter on the Removal from the book Thirteen Moons. On one side of the page is the Cherokee in Syllabary form, and on the opposite page it's there in phonetic spelling. Each page is labeled to correspond to the English version from the original book. This is the first major publication in Cherokee since the Bible. As a person of Cherokee heritage working these past few years to learn my own language from the Midwest, this was a blessing, to see our language in print. Charles Frazier ought to win national acclaim for both this fantastic book and for his efforts to revitalize the Cherokee language. He really thought of giving back to the community in a positive and enduring way.

On the other hand...
If that's the good news, what's the bad news?

Most critics said the plot was weak or beside the point. True. The story reads like a series of separate vignettes, not one cohesive story. Frazier stops to examine an episode in loving detail, then leaps ahead a year or three to the next episode he wants to examine in loving detail.

Moreover, each vignette seems to exist so Frazier can show off his storytelling ability, not to advance the plot. At several points I thought to myself, "Okay, he's just gone too far. The narrative is now about him, not his characters. No matter how sparkling the language, he should've cut it here."

The NY Times reviewer described this approach well:

The problem, I think, is that Frazier writes almost exclusively to create effects. He seems to be in love with the supposed gorgeousness of his own prose, a backdrop against which his characters emerge merely as dim figures, without consistent motivations or even personalities. Tolstoy and Virgil—and, come to think of it, Margaret Mitchell—credibly describe human beings driven by ambition, greed, drunkenness and fickle lust. Frazier can’t even get the drunkenness right. When Will is reunited with an old Cherokee buddy, “at a certain point of whiskey camaraderie, we contested to name all the colors the mountains and their foliage are able to take on. ... We went on down the colors, even all the purples, including puce. And the yellows including cadmium.” Now that’s what I’d call a couple of tough old-timers, getting plastered and chitchatting about cadmium and puce! (Unfortunately, they run through the rest of the color spectrum, as well.)

There’s one particularly revealing moment, a climactic scene of a duel between two of the main characters. Instead of telling us how it played out, Frazier gives three alternative versions. It’s as though he’s saying that he doesn’t know or care what his characters would really have done—or perhaps, couldn’t decide which of his rough drafts he preferred. Moreover, he has his narrator announce, “Readers may feel free to choose the story of their liking and consider it true history. ... Something happened. Beyond that, nothing is knowable.”

If that isn’t the worst possible epigram for an author of historical fiction, I don’t know what is.

Symptomatic of this problem is how the novel seems to trail off after Will reaches his acme. He spends the second half (or is it two-thirds?) of his life neglecting and frittering away his empire. He wanders cross-country, sits around campfires, and takes in the waters at a spa.

A few missing details
Toward the end Will mentions a few things he left out earlier. He had numerous love affairs and almost married one or two women. He owned slaves and didn't think about the moral implications of his acts. And he fought in the Civil War four years, though he mostly avoided battle.

Frazier downplays these revealing details because they don't fit the romantic, picaresque tale he wants to tell. But they're crucial for understanding a character. Again that's the point: Frazier sacrifices rich characterization for rich language. As one reviewer put it:

All of the key relationships in the book are developed in the first hundred pages and never really grow beyond that start. The descriptions of early America are wonderful and obviously well researched, but at some point the book becomes about those descriptions.One thing no one mentioned is the vague sense of time and place. Frazier identifies few real locations by name. Amazingly, he never even states what state the story takes place in. When Will visits the "lowlands" or the "state capitol," you don't know which lowlands or state capitol he means.

I guessed the setting was near the junction of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. That turned out to be correct; the Eastern Cherokee homeland is in the western tip of North Carolina. But readers shouldn't have to guess a key element like that.

The time frame is also vague. Except for a few unavoidable signposts—a couple of presidencies, the Cherokee removal, the Civil War—Frazier never states what year it is or how old Will is. Again we're left guessing.

For instance, when Will enters his "middle years," what age is that in 19th-century terms? 35? 40? 45? 50? Frazier acts as if there's no difference between a 35-year-old's thoughts and a 50-year-old's thoughts, but I can assure him otherwise.

Clearly Frazier meant Thirteen Moons to be a sentimental fantasy somewhat removed from a real historical setting. But if there's ever been a novel that worked better without a specific time and place than with one, I can't think of it. As books such as the Hillerman mysteries prove, specific settings enrich a story immeasurably. Thirteen Moons' lack of verisimilitude in this regard is a mistake.

Perhaps the worst choice in the novel is the framing device of Will as an old man. Frazier wastes the first couple of chapters and the last chapter on Will's musings on impending death. It didn't take long before I was thinking, "Huh? What is all this about? When is the old man going to start telling us about his life as a young man? When is the actual story going to begin?"

Because the story is almost over when Will reaches middle age, and because Frazier is clearly enthralled with getting to that point, he should've ended Thirteen Moons there. Instead, he's crossed a Huck Finn-style romp with King Lear-style ruminations. Will's adventures are a young man's game, so the old-man device doesn't help. If Frazier had framed the story as a middle-aged man looking back on his youth, he might've had something special.

The first half of Thirteen Moons soars; the second half sinks. As I got into the story and its lovely language, I was prepared to give it a rating of 8.5 or higher. But it eventually fades into dissolution, ending with a whimper, not a bang. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

More on Thirteen Moons
Atlanta reads Thirteen Moons
More on Frazier's bequest
NY Times reviews Thirteen Moons
Cherokees pleased with Thirteen Moons
Another review of Thirteen Moons
Frazier gives back to Cherokee
Review of Frazier's latest
Big money for Native book

Related links
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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