Cold Mountain Setting
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The American South Near the End of the Civil War (1864)
The where and the when are super freakin' important in this book.
The American South was a tough place to be in 1864. The next year, 1865, saw the end of the war, with the North winning, and the characters in the novel pretty much know this is coming. In the novel, things are tough for those on the homefront as well as for soldiers. The Federals are blockading the ports, which means that it's hard to get a lot of things. The inflation rate is astronomical, which means money is worth less and less. And the Federals are reaching into more and more Confederate territory, which means disruption for many of the women and children left behind.
Slavery was undoubtedly one of the most evil and shameful chapters of American history, so readers aren't necessarily sympathizing with the Confederacy overall. But it's hard not to feel empathy for characters like the Swangers, who don't own slaves and oppose the war, but are still missing their sons who are out fighting. Or for Sara, who's now struggling to survive after her husband died in the war.
Most of Frazier's characters aren't slaveholders, and many of them are just caught in a tough situation not of their own making. Where they live has changed their lives, whether they like it or not.
Shifting gears, the where is also important because much of the book takes place in the mountains of North Carolina. The beautiful natural scenery there is important to the book's symbolism (check out our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more).
It's 1864, the last year of the bloodiest war in American history to date. The main characters live in the South. They know the war is dragging toward an end, and they know it's likely to be hard on their side, and by the end of the book nobody thinks the South can win.
But the Southern Home Guard is still rounding up deserters like Inman and sending them back to the war or shooting them. It's a tough time to be a Southerner. Even for groups who should be a lot better off if the Union wins—like African-Americans—it's an uncertain time. Who knows what will happen as the South gets more desperate and the North keeps attacking? Our characters live in all this uncertainty.
Change is definitely coming…but what it will look like, no one knows.
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