“Though Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.”
Cold Mountain found me precisely at the moment I needed it. I was twenty-one and immersed in the toughest academic year of my life, at Oxford’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. For most American students, the Oxford tutorial system is a nerve-wracking gauntlet, and I was no exception. Producing weekly essays on Chaucer or 13th century mystics consumed my life, and my tutors never tired of reminding me that I was but a pale newbie to the long, long tradition of letters.
Chill rain soaked bustling Cornmarket Street the October day I ducked into the curved, high-columned building that houses Waterstone’s. I’d come to buy a specific translation of Beowulf, a much more traditional version than the one I was in love with—Seamus Heaney’s brilliant, personal encounter with that brutal classic of Olde English. Heaney had brought his Northern Irish heartbreak to bear on the old work, making it new. For the endless term paper I was writing on Heaney’s translation, I’d been urged to get a more “straight-arrow” version for comparison. At the time, I saw this advice as an effort to dampen my rhapsodic enthusiasm for Heaney’s diction (“But he chose word-hoard, don’t you see how radical that is?”), so the assignment had me feeling stymied.
As a treat for capitulating to authority, I wandered into the fiction section, gravitating toward the writers I’d recently been craving. Heaney’s work had me longing for the flinty storytellers of my own country. My homesickness surprised me—I didn’t long for the people back home, for American products, or for Nashville’s familiar city streets. My thoughts roamed instead to ridgetops, cricket chatter, muddy hillsides, country songs, and my grandparents’ peeling front porch. So when I settled onto the floor of the fiction aisle, I pulled down a copy of Cold Mountain.
Charles Frazier’s first novel was still somewhat new and had won the National Book Award. I knew it was set in the lower Blue Ridge. As a teenager, I had traveled there on road trips with my aunt, the mountains signaling to me, for the first time, that my young writer’s imagination was welcome somewhere. This was a powerful discovery—one I did not have words for at the time. The feeling in my chest was good, full of promise, but also dense and toughening, like a shovel striking dark, rich soil. I was thrilled, but kept quiet about it. Even now, the Blue Ridge remains the place that sets my imagination working like no other—a sanctuary, where I go to write whenever I can.
I also knew that Cold Mountain is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set during the Civil War. Inman, the male protagonist, walks away from his army hospital bed, and the nightmare of battle, to risk a long dangerous trek home to Cold Mountain. As Inman wanders this brutal landscape (or as he understates it, the “feverish world”), Cold Mountain remains his only vision of possible respite. Back home, Ada is fighting for her own survival, learning to farm the land she inherited from her high-minded minister father. Wrestling the land as well as her own “thistleish” manner, Ada’s struggle concerns the lonesome cost of discovering one’s true usefulness.
“Standing thick in the rows and towering over the vegetables were weeds that Ada could not name and had neither the energy nor the heart to fight. Beyond the failed garden stretched the old cornfield, now grown up shoulder high in poke and sumac. Above the fields and pastures, the mountains were just becoming visible as the morning fog burned away. Their pale outlines stood at the horizon, more like the ghosts of mountains than the actual things.”
I slipped the book back onto the shelf and floated outside into the English rain, my imagination roving. The next week, in another bookstore, I took a break from Beowulf research and read the second chapter. Again, I returned it to the shelf. To be clear, any restraint I now have in the ways of book buying came years after this era of my life. When I flew home that spring, I had to buy an extra suitcase to lug home the books I’d accumulated. Why I didn’t buy Cold Mountain—why I read it one chapter at a time throughout the school year, in corner chairs and cafes of numerous bookstores around Oxford—has remained mysterious to me. It’s a memory I’m fond of recalling but had never examined.
The secrets of homeland, my own place in a tradition—that’s what the novel gave me the first time. I was becoming a fiction writer and just beginning to embrace my southern identity. I won’t take these comparisons too far. The Oxford system is tough, but I wasn’t at war. Apprenticeship as a writer takes unreasonable exertion and commitment, but I wasn’t plowing earth for my bodily survival. Still, Frazier’s novel seemed to touch on these matters in a way that writers sometimes need most—contact with the heart of the imagination. Or maybe not the heart—maybe the far periphery, like the shadowed tree line where thick forest meets clearing. Then and now, Cold Mountain meets my imagination at the crepuscular edge of dreamstate, where writers do their best work.
Cold Mountain reached me in that place, and maybe I wanted to keep it there. Perhaps that’s why I kept slipping it back onto the shelf. As a student, I tried my best with all those rigorous critical studies of European classics. But I needed something secret, too. It’s a reading habit I’ve retained. I’m nearly always reading a book I won’t mention to anyone, like a secret ingredient added to my days.
Approaching Cold Mountain now, it’s lost none of its power to enchant. Proceeding at its own pace, it resists any kind of hurry. The book insists that you enter its world on its own terms, leaving behind the stride of the contemporary world. Its mountain landscape is laden with secret coves, gorges, and narrow footpaths, and Inman’s episodes of dark misadventure feel conjured from wafting mists. Homer’s mythic power shines through, made new in ways I’m sure Heaney and his word-hoard would’ve approved.
This time through, Inman and Ada’s decisions resonated more personally for me. At twenty-one, I couldn’t understand their losses, or their fear, because I hadn’t yet lost anything or anyone that truly mattered to me. Even in the face of dire privation and brutality, Inman and Ada try to choose kindness where they can. They keep going in the face of loss, one foot in front of the other.
When I reread Cold Mountain, my copy was crisp, and binding crackled when I opened it. Shortly after I returned to the states, I bought that pristine hardcover, and up it went, onto my shelves where I could think of it fondly whenever I saw it. I’d think not only of Inman and Ada, but also of those stolen hours in corners of Oxford’s bookstores and the furtive pleasure of recognizing my turf. By then, I was headed down my own road—not the scholarly path, but one much messier and closer to the bone. After long foreign travels, I’d come home a fiction writer and a southerner. Cold Mountain will always play a pivotal role in the story of that grand adventure.
Emily Choate has held writer’s residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and ISLAND (Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design). A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Florida Review, Chapter 16, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.