Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

May 27, 1997

Cold Mountain opens with its protagonist, Inman, lying in a Virginia hospital recovering from war wounds. He is shattered by the violence he has witnessed while fighting in the Confederate army and wants to go home to reunite with Ada, the woman he l...

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Historical Fiction

356 Pages

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Book Content

Cold Mountain opens with its protagonist, Inman, lying in a Virginia hospital recovering from war wounds. He is shattered by the violence he has witnessed while fighting in the Confederate army and wants to go home to reunite with Ada, the woman he loves.

Cold Mountain is a 1997 historical novel by Charles Frazier which won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. It tells the story of W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate army near the end of the American Civil War who walks for months to return to Ada Monroe, the love of his life; the story shares several similarities with Homer's Odyssey. The narrative alternates back and forth every chapter between the stories of Inman and Ada, a minister's daughter recently relocated from Charleston to a farm in a rural mountain community near Cold Mountain, North Carolina from which Inman hails. Though they only knew each other for a brief time before Inman departed for the war, it is largely the hope of seeing Ada again that drives Inman to desert the army and make the dangerous journey back to Cold Mountain. Details of their brief history together are told at intervals in flashback over the course of the novel.

Charles Frazier (born November 4, 1950) is an American novelist. He won the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction for Cold Mountain.



    Cold Mountain (1997) ISBN 978-0802142849

    Thirteen Moons (2007) ISBN 978-0812967586

    Nightwoods (2011) ISBN 978-0812978803

    Varina (2018) ISBN 978-0062405982


The novel, which was Charles Frazier's first, became a major best-seller, selling roughly three million copies worldwide. It was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name in 2003.


Frazier has said that the real W. P. Inman was his great-grand-uncle who lived near the real Cold Mountain, which is now within the Pisgah National Forest, Haywood County, North Carolina. In the book's acknowledgments, Frazier apologizes for taking "great liberties" in writing of W. P. Inman's life. Frazier also used Hendricks County, Indiana, native John V. Hadley's book Seven Months a Prisoner as inspiration for the novel.

Awards and nominations


Cold Mountain won the National Book Award, the W.D. Weatherford Award (1997), and the Boeke Prize (1998).


The book was adapted for the screen by director Anthony Minghella, as the 2003 film Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Jude Law, and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Renée Zellweger.

The novel has been adapted as an opera, Cold Mountain, which was presented during the 2015 summer festival season by The Santa Fe Opera, in co-commissions and co-productions with Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera, and recorded for PENTATONE (PTC 5186583). The work was composed by the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner in music, Jennifer Higdon, from a libretto written by Gene Scheer. It was Higdon's first opera.


John Mullan

Ada and Ruby have discovered Ruby's father, Stobrod, shot and left for dead in the winter wilderness by Confederate vigilantes. He is clinging on to life, so they begin to drag him down from the mountains on a rudely fashioned sledge. In the snow and fog they come down into a valley.


"They crossed a marshy place and on either side of the trail huckleberry bushes grew head high. At the bottom of the valley they passed a pool of still black water. It came up out of the fog as if a hole had opened in the world. Old dead ribbons of taupe bunchgrass ringed it, and ice scalloped all around its verge like a camera iris closing. Three black ducks floated motionless in the pool's center, their heads tucked against their breasts. Were she writing a book of types, Ada thought, that would do for fear."

It is a characteristic fragment of description. Details of the natural world have to be recorded. The meanings attached to the scene are entirely Ada's. The simile of the camera iris is hers: she has seen photographs taken and is much preoccupied with this modern (in the 1860s) art. That last sentence, with its weirdly religious notion of turning anything seen in nature into an emblem, is natural for the daughter of a religious minister.


You might think that natural description is what an author provides to let a reader imagine a place, the background against which the characters are placed. Cold Mountain, which takes its title from a peak in the Great Balsam Mountains of Northern Carolina, certainly carries its author's knowledge of a particular area. But natural description is there to follow the two main characters' eyes and minds. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate army, walks for weeks to try to get home. Ada, the daughter of a preacher turned farmer, tries, with the help of her resourceful companion Ruby, to live off her land after her father's death.

Before the Civil War separated them, Inman and Ada were in the early throes of an awkward romance. The novel's chapters alternate between their stories, both of which require an attention to the natural world: Inman's attention because he must survive in the wilds; Ada's attention because she has committed herself to hewing a living out of a wilderness.


Every day Ada wakes to the same view, across to Cold Mountain. "The morning sky was featureless, a color like that made on paper from a thin wash of lampblack". The simile is not there to help the reader (what do we know of a wash of lampblack?) but to catch the perception of the character. Every day the weather and the light and most of all the kinds of moisture in the air give it some special, different appearance. A novel that makes us experience the often exhausting round of Ada and Ruby's agricultural labours also makes us, with Ada, notice the small differences of the same view between one day and another. "To live fully in a place all your life, you keep aiming smaller and smaller in attention to detail," Ada realises.


Ada keeps a sketchbook in which she records odd examples of flora and fauna. The sections of the narrative told from her point of view achieve a heightened perceptiveness that she has been taught by Ruby, who knows the natural world in order to live off it. "A cloud of martins erupted out of a maple tree nearing the peak of its colour. The sun's bottom limb was just touching the ridge and the sky was the color of hammered pewter. The martins flew from the tree as one body, still in the shape of the round maple they had filled. Then they banked into the wind, slipped sideways in the moving air on extended wings for two heartbeats …"


Natural description is also natural history. A native of the mountain country of the Southern Appalachians, Inman carries the names of plants and trees in his head, and the narrative names them without any concession to any reader's ignorance. Hemlock trees and jack pines, goldenseal and yarrow. Inman's only escape from his ordeal is the one book that he carries with him, John Bartram's Diary of a Journey Through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. As Inman reads, passages from Bartram insert themselves into the narrative. Camping out in the woods with some Gypsies, he reads, and an elaborate sentence of 18th-century botanical description uncoils itself, describing in patient detail the form of a particular rhododendron. Crossing the seemingly endless mountain ridges of the Carolinas, he sees the accuracy of Bartram's description of "the undulations gradually depressing, yet perfectly regular, as the squama of fish, or imbrications of tile on a roof".


Ada remembers her father, Monroe, transforming the "wild and broken terrain" into something more consoling by preaching lines from Wordsworth's "Prelude". Monroe has read Thoreau and Emerson, and some of the latter's phrasing makes its way into the novel's descriptive language. But nature does not elevate or promise transcendence. In Cold Mountain, the men Inman meets on his long journey belong to nature only by imitating the hungry desperation of animals. He crosses "a gnarled and taliped and snaggy landscape where man might be seen as an afterthought". The very harshness of the diction tells you how the natural world is impervious to our every wish.



Book Awards

National Book Award for Nonfiction

Book Publishers

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