Ever play one of those RPG video games where you're on some sort of quest? Don't lie to us, Shmoopers. We know that you've stayed awake way too late going through a lot of cool (and insane) landscapes, trying to get to some important castle or Mount Doom.
Think of Cold Mountain as the literary second cousin of those games. The main character—a guy named Inman—has deserted the Confederate Army after an injury and is trying to work his way home. Home is the Cold Mountain region of North Carolina, and also happens to be the place where the woman he loves lives. Her name is Ada, and she's kind of got a quest going, too. But instead of traveling all over in an attempt to get home, her quest is to find enough food to survive.
Basically, Inman is playing an RPG and Ada is playing a particularly difficult version of Oregon Trail—she's coming across problems every bit as horrific as her oxen not being able to ford the river and all of her relations dying of consumption. (No, really: her family dies of consumption.)
Like any good RPG, from Legend of Zelda on, there are plenty of side quests, treasures like lives and tools to collect, and of course lots of distractions and Boss Fights. Inman has his work cut out for him (and so does Ada—that farm ain't going to till itself).
And like any good RPG, this one feels kind of oddly familiar. There's a war-weary hero struggling through innumerable difficulties to get home to the love of his life. There's a strong, wise woman beleaguered by challenging realities as she strives to hang on while waiting for her beloved to come back.
Ring any bells? Well, Cold Mountain is referencing the Odyssey—the classic hero's quest story.
But what if RPGs, Oregon Trail, and the Odyssey all leave you cold? Never fear: Cold Mountain's got more. It's also simply a whip-smart piece of historical fiction set in a moment of American history that still affects us today. If you like hoop skirts and period guns, you're in luck. And you may just find yourself imagining what it's like to live through one of the most formative wars in American history.
Cold Mountain has it all: action, romance, period stuff, a smart remake of one of the best classics ever, and a poignant exploration of what it means to be connected to a place and to other people. Oh, yeah, and enough hard-hitting literary chops to nab Charles Fraser a National Book Award in 1997, turn him from an unknown author into a literary Big Name, and get made into a star-studded, Oscar-winning movie.
Put all that in your Civil War-era pipe and smoke it.
So some muddy guy is trying to get home from a battle fought 150 years ago. Who cares?
The correct answer is all of you.
If you're American, there's basically no way to understand the world that you live in without understanding the Civil War. It shaped a ton of things about everyday life, from how much power the US government has to the fact that our country no longer allows slavery (the whole "slavery is evil" thing didn't really sway a lot of people back then, weirdly). Spending some time imagining the lives of Americans during the Civil War is a way of thinking through American history and America today.
But what if American history and current events set you napping more effectively than a glass of warm milk and a Bach playlist? That's cool (not really, though: history is super interesting!), because Cold Mountain also tips its hat to the big daddy of epics: the Odyssey. The tale of a hero coming home while a strong woman learns to shape her environment has been a bestseller since Homer.
And boy, does Frazier know how to tell it: prose as sweet as Pentatonix harmonies, imagery that would move even a brute like Simon Cowell to tears, and a style to die for. We're practically swooning here at Shmoop. And we're some (literary) battle-hardened toughies.
But American history, classic epics, and stylin' prose aside, at its heart this is a book about something we can all identify with: longing for home. Did you ever want to get back to a place so much you could barely talk about it? Have you ever realized you feel at home with another person and want to find your way back to that person again?
Whether it's the person you've always had a crush on or the place where you grew up, we all want to come home to something. And that's what Cold Mountain is about: what it means to want a home so badly you'd learn to run a farm when you don't even know how to cook, walk hundreds of miles while being pursued, and fight against any odds to get to it.
Battle of the Crater
You know that crazy awful battle at Petersburg Inman tells Veasey about? More details here.
Inman has vivid, and bad, memories of Fredericksburg. See how it all went down.
Other People's Mail
Want to read actual entries from letters like Inman's or diaries like Ada's? North Carolina Digital History is here to help!
Shmoop Has Answers
For all sorts of Civil War knowledge, check out our learning guides.
What's Not to Like?
This film stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and a host of other great actors, plus an awesome soundtrack featuring Alison Krauss and other amazing folk music. And the scenery is gorgeous.
Want to learn what Civil War soldiers on both sides ate? This page will tell you about it.
Sweet! Interview with Charles Frazier
Frazier's almost as good at interviews as he is at novels. Read one here.
Why No Coffee?
Why can't Ada and Ruby get coffee, except what Monroe left in the basement? It's Federal General Winfield Scott's fault. Sort of, anyway.
One of the most famous documentaries of our time, Ken Burns's The Civil War has clips like this one available on YouTube.
"Poor Wayfaring Stranger"
This is the song Sara sings the second night Inman stays in her cabin, recorded by a dude who collected folk music. Pretty awesome!
Sounds yucky. But "goober peas" is just another name for peanuts. This funny song was popular with Confederate soldiers. If Inman weren't so sad at the beginning of the book, he'd sing it while eating his peanuts.
Here's some fiddle music like the type Stobrod might be playing. It may start mellow, but Mark O'Connor's fiddle is on fire by the end.
The Other Side
Nobody seems to be sure whether this is Fredericksburg or Petersburg, but either way it gives an idea what Inman's opponents might have been doing before the battle.
Battle of Petersburg
Check out this cool illustration from way back when. This is after Inman leaves, but you get the idea.
Here's the crater at Petersburg made by the Union forces. Inman talks about the event in exile and brute wandering.