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Charles Frazier
Thirteen Moons
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 0-375-50932-1
424 Pages; $26.95
Publication Date: 10-03-2006
Date Reviewed: 02-05-2007

Index: General Fiction

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 reader.

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.

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