Mountain Man

"Cold Mountain" author Charles Frazier says his grandparents lived on "a sort of Jeffersonian family farm, self-reliant and independent." (By Phil Bray -- Random House Via Bloomberg News)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

NEAR BRYSON CITY, N.C. As he peers out across the Tuckasegee River, running faster and higher than usual on this soggy western Carolina day, Charles Frazier can see at least three layers into the American past.

The first involves a death struggle between a Cherokee boy and a humongous bear.

"They brawled down a hillside and then to the river's edge and then onward until they were waist-deep in the water," the author of "Cold Mountain" writes in his second novel, "Thirteen Moons," which hits bookstores tomorrow. The boy goes under and it looks as though he won't come up, but in the end he triumphs, earning himself a new name: "Bear Drowning Him," or "Bear" for short.

While working on "Thirteen Moons," Frazier would sometimes drive an hour or so west from his Asheville home to scout out locations in which he could imagine the action. "This little piece of river," he says, revisiting it now, is what he settled on for Bear's mythic fight.

Layer 2 has to do with a less triumphant scene that Frazier can picture here as well.

On the flat, grassy ground on the far side of the Tuckasegee, an old Cherokee named Charley stands with his sons. Hands bound, they await execution. A flash of powder, smoke rising from muskets, a sound like "dry sticks breaking" -- and they are gone.

Each of these scenes, like much in Frazier's book, rises out of the true history of the Cherokees. Specifically, each relates to the less well-known portion of the tribe, now known as the Eastern Band, that managed to avoid removal to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

Bear's significance to his people can scarcely be exaggerated. As their chief at the time, it was his sagacity and foresight that kept the Eastern Band off the Trail of Tears. Old Charley's sad fate -- as readers of "Thirteen Moons" will come to understand -- was also crucial to the band's ability to remain in its homeland.

As for layer 3: The novelist, who grew up nearby, has a personal attachment to this particular stretch of riverbank.

Think carhops, he says, "a sort of classic '50s drive-in restaurant, hanging off -- right here, where that railing is." Picture a teenage world where time moved slowly: "You have a girl in the car for the day and cruise around, stop and get a hamburger over the river."

Layers and layers. What links them? Frazier doesn't explain. But you don't need a novelist's imagination to see that the stories he tells are about roots, about connections, about the yearning to evade the tear-filled trail of change and loss.

Oh, and one more thing:

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