Charles Frazier’s new book, Thirteen Moons, revisits the bracing wilds of North Carolina to recount the fate of small people churned up by big history - in this case the enforced removal in the 1830s of Native American communities from their traditional hunting grounds. The geography is big too: long vistas of peak and valley, river and gorge - Davy Crockett country reimagined for a tale of epic struggle and doomed love, but still good, you feel, for shooting bears.
Will Cooper is a white orphan boy forced into indentured drudgery as keeper of a remote trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He likes to read Homer and but can handle a snake and play poker too. He is adopted by the local Indian chief and, over the years, prospers commercially with his hides, molasses and liquor, goes into real estate, lawyering and politics and brings the Cherokee cause to Congress. There's a hard-to-get beautiful girl who comes and goes. There's a scarred villain. There's the scrag end of the war with the North. There's a heap of feudin' and duellin'. In fact there's a heap of everything - political shenanigans, riverboat hygiene, campfire lore, Washington etiquette, Cherokee fashions (silk turbans), indigenous wildfowl, retail accountancy, whoring, how to spit-roast a possum, plus painstaking inventories of Will's shop, his attic, the voluminous saddlebags that accompany him on his innumerable excursions down this or that lonesome trail over succeeding decades.
It is an ambitious, ranging novel that (mostly) feels like an $8m read (the sum of the monstrous book advance). Frazier has the big storyteller's art. He is a careful chooser of words and in his descriptions has a way of making us look more closely at horses, rocks and water, or impressing upon us the weight of a hatchet in a man's hand. His metaphors are unforced, arising from the landscape or some aspect of 'redskin' doings. But the sheer welter of stuff at times carries us in an opposite direction to the emotional pull of the novel. Will's yearning for the girl never quite means as much to us as it does him; a bloody massacre of soldiers is gauged too readily in political terms; individual deaths are parenthesised by more urgent affairs. There's no time to lose. The book - impatient to spin the next yarn, to fathom the workings of some unusual cultural artifact, to classify another dragoon of characters in their particulars of blood provenance, dietary preference, hat size etc - refuses to dwell too long on any single incident, trivial or tragic.