- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

THIRTEEN MOONS: A NOVEL

By Charles Frazier

Random House, $26.95, 422 pages

REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO

Beware the long-awaited second novel. It’s doomed to be considered a disappointment, like the younger sibling of an overachieving older child. Number two is always going to have something extra to prove.

This setup is even harder when the first novel happens to be Charles Frazier’s powerful and haunting “Cold Mountain,” a Civil War story that won the National Book Award and was made into an Oscar-winning movie with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

Ten years later, Mr. Frazier has finally come out with a new book, “Thirteen Moons.” It’s a story told through the eyes of Will Cooper, adopted by the Cherokee Indians in the 19th century, about the Cherokee nation and its Trail of Tears, in which many Cherokees were forced off their land in the southeastern states and had to relocate to bleak, flat Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way.

Although Mr. Frazier says that Will Cooper is not a historical figure, the narrative line clearly follows the real-life story of William Holland Thomas, the bright young man who ran a trading post on the edge of Cherokee territory and who fought to represent the interests of the Cherokees as their land was being stolen from them. The two “share some DNA,” Mr. Frazier admits in an author’s note.

No matter what Mr. Frazier professes, this is a historical novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the story of William Holland Thomas and his role in fighting for the rights and the land of the Cherokees hasn’t been told very often. There are a couple of biographies of Thomas available, and much written on the Trail of Tears, but Mr. Frazier might be the first novelist to take on the story of the “white chief.”

To be honest, it is a bit of a task. Part of the problem of framing a novel on actual events is that they can sometimes get in the way of a good story. In “Thirteen Moons,” that’s exactly what happens: The story is compelling but endlessly layered.

The orphaned boy is sent by his aunt and uncle to be a kind of indentured servant to the owner of a trading post on the far edge of the Cherokee Nation. He is just 12. Somehow, he makes it through, encounters the Cherokee leaders who will have a lasting effect on him and starts to make a life for himself, reading whatever books cross his path, making a bit of money and learning the way the world works.

Enter a beautiful Indian girl, Claire Featherstone, who becomes the love of Will’s life, and whose presence or lack of it becomes the defining force in his life. Claire is a mysterious, Pocahontas-type person, slim and beautiful but forever unknowable. If you’re thinking that Mr. Frazier had the book-to-movie deal in mind when he brought a romantic interest to a story that didn’t seem to have one in real life, you’re probably not too far from the truth. There are some pretty steamy scenes between the two young people on the mud flats of the river.

And here’s a cinematic moment, when the two escape on horseback from a formal party: “I looked around and Claire had loosed her hair from its binding, and it too was whipping long behind, and her dress skirt was blowing back, flaring like a comet’s tail, as if that sweep of hair and skirt was all the effect the resistance of the world could have on us as we streaked through the night in a moment that I could not then know was unrepeatable.”

Mr. Frazier also dances on the edge of cliche with his portrait of Bear, the Cherokee chief who makes him his son. Bear expounds upon the need for a sense of place:

“He said he meant that truly living in a place means being tied to it in ways I was not. Having a place means being bound in many directions. To the land, the animals, and the people. By relations and even the names of places. Such ties are both comforting and discomforting. In some ways it is easier to be an exile than to have responsibilities. But also sadder. I had no bonds and was therefore lost in the world.”

Bear’s speech sets us up for what happens later: the forced removal of most of the Cherokees from their ancestral homeland. It was only through the efforts of the real person, William Holland Thomas, that the Eastern Band of Cherokee retained a portion of that land.

Despite these high-minded intentions, some elements of the novel pull it down. First, the narrative is too often told by an old, decrepit man, a narrator who has all the time in the world to fill in every last detail, every clink of the glass in a round of drinks, every swim in the river, every last drawn-out conversation. Some will love that; others will find that immersion in the meandering pace of the 19th century isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

And second, there is the fact that Will Cooper can be an almost unbearably passive person, the type who fails to act in crucial moments. Claire leaves him, not once but twice. Members of his Cherokee community are killed before his eyes. He lets his fortune in real estate slip away from him. It’s hard to get a clear sense of whether Will Cooper cares enough about what happens to him.

But those flaws may not be enough to drive away most readers. If you’re willing to spend a little time with a man who gives us a vivid portrait of an era when our nation made some dastardly mistakes, you might find “Thirteen Moons” worth the effort. One thing is certainly true: Because of this book, the fate and character of the Cherokee nation is a few degrees more real to us than it was before.

Debra Bruno is an editor at Legal Times.

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