This is one amazing ending. We knew Charles Frazier was pretty awesome, but here he knocks it out of the park. The novel ends with Inman, shot, in Ada's arms. Frazier doesn't even tell us whether he lives or dies, he just says that the optimistic reader could imagine Ada and Inman having many happy years together.
Pretty crazy, right? Why would Frazier do this to us? Because it gets us to read the Epilogue?
Actually, it's more than that. Not telling us what happens lets us fill in the answers when Frazier tells us what's happening ten years down the road in the Epilogue. We're left to figure out that Inman died and Ada is raising their child. We see her at a late fall picnic with Ruby and Ruby's family, and we realize that Inman isn't there, but their daughter is.
Is this ending satisfying? We think so, and here's why. The book ends with Ada reading the story of Baucis and Philemon, two lovers who spend a happy life together and then are transformed into trees at the end of it. Ada and Inman don't get to spend their lives together (unlike Baucis and Philemon) and in that way Cold Mountain is tragic.
But the Baucis and Philemon story is also about a transformation of death—instead of a tragic cutting short of life, Baucis and Philemon receive a transformation that lets them be in harmony with the natural world and with each other, even at the end of their lives.
Does this story mean that Ada and Inman reached something transformative in the brief time they were together, something so astonishing that even death doesn't end it? Taken along with Inman's hope to reach a better world through arriving at Cold Mountain and the story of a better world told by the Cherokee woman, we think so. But how you read it is up to you.