Cold Mountain (novel)

Mountains in deep shades of blue
The mountain looks cold.

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a rarity: A Civil War novel that isn’t written in clichés.

At Petersburg, Confederate soldier Inman was fatally wounded but he survived anyway. In chapter 1, he steps from a hospital window and starts for Cold Mountain, hoping Ada has waited for him.

Ada had come to Cold Mountain with her father. Inman wrangled an introduction. Before he left, she and Inman had an understanding.  While Inman was away, Ada’s father died.

Ada is educated, but she has no domestic skills. On her own, she couldn’t survive. A neighbor sends Ruby to Ada. Ruby can’t read or write, but she can bargain. She offers to teach Ada how to run a farm. They’ll work together, eat together, but not live together. “Everybody empties their own night jar,” Ruby says.

While Inman hikes home, trying to stay healthy and avoid being caught as a deserter, the women try to keep a roof over their heads, stockpile food and fuel for the winter, and avoid marauding soldiers.

Frazier makes his characters and settings come alive in prose that never uses an unfamiliar word when a familiar one will work, never tells what he can show.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press. ©1997. 356 p.
1997 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal

dust jacket cover is all textGore Vidal’s Lincoln is an absolutely marvelous historical novel, far too good to interest average American readers who propelled North and South to the 1984 bestseller list.

Vidal doesn’t invent stories: He pulls out the stories hidden in historical documents, translates them into contemporary language, and puts them in dramatic context. He lets readers can decode the character and motivation of persons long since dead.

Vidal’s focus is Lincoln’s “White House” years. (During Lincoln’s occupancy, it was called the President’s House.)

The novel opens February, 1861 with president-elect Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, disguised in plain clothes and guarded by detective Allan Pinkerton.

The country has split over slavery.

Several “cotton republics” have already seceded from the Union.

Lincoln’s life has been threatened.

Lincoln has one overriding goal: Maintaining the unity of the states.

Vidal weaves into his narrative contrasting and conflicting impressions of Lincoln held by the people with whom he spent the most time:  His personal staff, his cabinet, and the generals who he is forced to rely on to fight to save the Union.

Vidal’s writing is sparklingly clear and bubbles with humor.

Through the multiplicity of viewpoints, Vidal provides nuanced picture of President Lincoln, the politician.

Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal
Random House 1st ed. 1984. 657 p.
1984 bestseller #10; my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Love and War

collage of icons for North and South are on front cover of “Love and War”
Icons suggest splintered focus

In Love and War, volume two of John Jakes’ trilogy about America’s war between the states, Jakes shows there was nothing civil about it.

In North and South, knowing war was inevitable, George Hazard of Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina had vowed nothing would destroy their friendship forged at West Point Military Academy.

In Love and War Jakes shows the difficulty of keeping that vow.

In his struggle to follow a dozen members of the two families, Jakes writes chapters that are crazy quilts of story patches.

An extra line of leading signals a change of focus to a different character. The characters themselves are paper dolls moved around on a map.

Jakes’ stuffs the novel with historical trivia which, while interesting, underscore the disjointedness of his storytelling.

Jakes toils to show all his “good characters” developing sympathy for people who are not like them social, economically, or racially, but he doesn’t succeed.

The novel’s only nuanced interracial interaction that of southern belle Brett Hazard and freed slave she assists in running a school for orphaned Black children.

Love and War ultimately proves that in fiction, as in race relations, emotional ties can be built only with individuals, not with abstractions.

Love and War by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1st ed. ©1984. 1019 p.
1984 bestseller #4. My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

North and South

images of steel mill and West Point cadet separated by words NORTH AND SOUTH from image of South Carolina plantation
the people are all 1-dimensional

Take all the novels you’ve ever read about America’s Civil War, put them in your Magic Bullet, push the on button, and you’d have John Jakes’s novel North and South.

The novel contrasts two families whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.

The Mains were aristocratic French Protestants who settled in South Carolina.

The first Hazard in America was a working-class English teen who had murdered his stepfather. That lad went to work in the Pennsylvania iron industry.

In 1842 Orry Main and Charles Hazard meet as plebes at the Military Academy at West Point. They become life-long friends despite their different temperaments and backgrounds.

Jakes follows the two men and their families up through Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession.

The dust jacket notes say the novel is “filled with memorable characters, many of them captured from the pages of history.”

Actually, all the memorable characters are from history.

Jakes gives his fictional characters labels and then moves them around like paper dolls.

It’s interesting that Congressman Daniel Boone proposed a bill to close the Military Academy, which was regarded contemptuously in both North and South, but historical trivia is insufficient compensation for characters who are stereotypes.

North and South by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1st ed. ©1982. 740 p.
1982 bestseller #8. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Lady Baltimore is multiple-layer novel

I had to read Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore a second time last week, having failed to save the review I wrote of the bestselling novel in May of 2015.

Despite its confectionary name, it’s a novel that withstands repeated reading.


Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister

1906 bestseller # 2. Project Gutenberg Ebook #1386. My grade: B.


A young gentleman named Augustus tells the story. His snobbish aunt has sent him to Kings Port, South Carolina, to research family history.

Augustus is having lunch at the Women’s Exchange, when a young man comes in and orders a Lady Baltimore cake for the following Wednesday.

It’s clear to Augustus and to pretty, young counter clerk (who also happens to bake the cakes) that young man is ordering his own wedding cake.

When he’s not in the library, Augustus uses his letters of introduction and his fondness for Lady Baltimore cake to find out about the would-be bridegroom, John Mayant; his finacée, Hortense Rieppe; and the charming cake baker.

Readers must pay close attention to figure out how Augustus figured out what happened.

Wister called Lady Baltimore a romance. It’s that and more: Mystery, history, social criticism, and generous dollops of humor mingle pleasantly in its pages.

Augustus’s view of the American “Negro” may offend readers—but it’s an accurate picture of “enlightened” whites’ attitudes in the 1906.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers will find mouthwatering photographs, historical information, and recipes for the Lady Baltimore cake on the What’s Cooking America website.