We create the
world we live in, one day at a time. There are the details the reserve
for recall, and those that implant themselves without our permission.
We act, or don't, based on our desires, our fears, and our immediate
needs. We string together memories, and create a narrative that is our
life in our world. It's a side effect of being human.
And being human, we can't help but be fascinated by the history of others,
the details they accumulate to create their lives. Charles Frazier's
'Thirteen Moons' shows both the power and the peril of the historical
narrative. He's an accomplished poetic writer who creates a spell with
evocative prose and carefully accumulated details. 'Thirteen Moons' immerses
the reader in a world with which we have little connection. It's the
story of change and love, of a nation in the process of inventing and
re-inventing itself even as the characters work to use the change to
their advantage. Much of the novel is enchanting and transporting, successfully
whisking the reader to what is essentially another world. But when that
world itself becomes less enchanting, the narrative does as well.
Will Cooper (pronounced "cupper") orphaned at the age of twelve
is handed a map, a key and sent to an outpost in the remote wilderness.
He's befriended by Bear, a Cherokee chief who becomes a sort of surrogate
father. Bear is smart, worldly and generous. Will's other father figure
from the Cherokee nation is Featherstone, more of a wild man and a warrior,
who has a daughter named Claire that Will comes to love. It is that love,
that bond that takes Will through a whole lot of history. That love is
the through-line for the world that Frazier builds for will and for the
From the first line in this novel – "There is no scatheless
rapture." – readers will realize that Frazier is fine writer
with a poetic streak that he uses to his advantage. The story is told
in the first person voice of Will Cooper, in a flowing natural style.
There are many passages of this novel that seem intended to be read aloud.
He uses the dashed style of punctuation to set off dialogue, which works
well here. Readers will love Frazier's descriptions of the landscape,
which seem almost hand tooled, invested with emotion and a passion for
detail, or the landscape itself. But Frazier knows how to pare down and
back off as well, so that we don’t feel overwhelmed by long passages
of description. Prose writing is a delicate act, and Frazier clearly
knows how to keep the balance.
He's great with characters as well. Will Cooper is carefully layered
with a frame setup that gives readers access to the now-and-then, to
the man and the boy. Since the man is telling the story, we understand
why the prose is so crystalline and gorgeous even as we watching a boy
grow up in the dirt. But Will is a smart boy, who loves reading, and
who grows up, with the help of Bear, to become a lawyer. Bear is a compelling
man, and like all the characters that Frazier creates, he comes to life
through the historical details and images found in this meticulously
researched novel. Like all the Eastern Cherokee, he's not what we'd expect.
He owns a plantation, as doe Featherstone, and both live in high style
in the deep wilderness. It's an isolated, weird world, a patch of American
history that this reader was unfamiliar with. As Will grows up and find
his place in his world, Frazier handles a much larger cast of smaller
characters, including walk-ons by a number of historical figures with
great skill. Unfortunately, the love of Will's life, Claire, seems a
bit sketchy in comparison to the more fully realized men that surround
him. Part of this is the Will's inability to ever really understand Claire,
but readers will look forward more to Bear's appearance in the narrative
than they will to Claire's, though Will clearly feels otherwise.
Frazier's story is no less than the entire life of a man, but most readers
will find the life of the boy more compelling than that of the man he
becomes. The early, immersive scenes are filled with fantastic visions
and even if Will is going nowhere fast, it's a really interesting nowhere
and we're happy to follow him. Frazier does not follow the Trail of Tears
in this novel, and that is a very smart move. Instead, we follow Will
and Bear as they try to lawyer their way into keeping hold of the land
for the Eastern Cherokee nation. The scenes in the literal swamp of early
Washington DC are indeed fascinating, and the arc of Will's life takes
him through many changes in history. But interestingly, the novel is
most compelling in the opening portions. Lawyering may indeed be what
happened historically, but it doesn't make for as compelling a story
as the boy in the wilderness. That sense of wonder is destroyed by the
world that Will himself helps create.
'Thirteen Moons' is a powerfully written novel that creates, detail by
detail, a historical world that is no more, a world that is as unknown
to most readers as any world of fantasy. Frazier even invests his vision
of the past with an aura of the fantastic; you'll meet witches and discover
creatures not in your manual for North American fauna. For this reader,
the gorgeous prose throughout and the strong beginning made the book
well-worth reading. The finale is actually more interesting and detailed
than the beginning, but also less hypnotic, less beautiful. Readers will
want to find out what becomes of the characters and places that Frazier
so carefully creates. But in your mind, you'll only want to go back and
visit those idyllic opening moments.