Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
'At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman's eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to get one more day in the hospital ward.'
Wounded in the American Civil War, Inman is a Confederate soldier who turns his back on the carnage of the battlefields and begins a treacherous journey back to his homeland in the Northern Carolina mountains and to the woman he loved before the war began.
Charles Frazier's book also portrays a parallel journey for her - Ada - as she struggles to wrest a living from the neglected land that was her only inheritance on her once-prosperous father's death. A young woman raised in the niceties of Charleston society, relocated by her pastor father's ill-health to the backwoods, she might be well-read and able to play the piano and draw, but without servants is reduced to digging undergarments from the bottom of the laundry pile in the hope time has rendered them less stale. Her principal meals are from stale biscuits and eggs scavenged from hens left to run wild and guarded by a bully of a cockerel.
'The rooster cocked his head at an angle and fixed a shining black eye on her...Ada shifted about onto her knees and waved her hands and said, Shoo! When she did, the rooster launched himself at her face, twisting in the air so that he arrived spurs first, wings flogging... Ada hit at it with open-handed blows until it fell away and then she ran to the porch and into the house.'
A sympathetic neighbour sends the intrepid young Ruby to help. A wonderful no-nonsense character, Ruby announces that she will teach Ada how to manage the farm, but draws the line at emptying her chamberpot. She reminds me uncannily of the heroine of Delia Owens' book - Where the Crawdads Sing - with a mother absent from her earliest years; a wastrel father intermittently abandoning his child fend for herself in their backwoods hovel; and a sympathy with birds, animals and plants. With little in common except being alone in a hostile world, the two women become partners and friends.
'The yellow and black rooster walked by the porch and paused to stare at them.
I despise that bird, Ada said. He tried to flog me.
Ruby said, I'd not keep a flogging rooster.
Then how might we run it off? Ada said.
Ruby looked at her with puzzlement. She rose and stepped off the porch and in one swift motion snatched up the rooster, tucked his body under her left arm, and with her right hand pulled off his head.
He'll be stringy, so we'd best stew him awhile, Ruby said.'
Frazier's writing, to my mind, is masterful, whether it be describing the rugged beauty of Inman's homeland or Ada's exhaustion at unaccustomed work in the fields:
'Her arms were mackled red like a measles sufferer from being pricked and scraped with the cut grass ends and she had a blood-filled blister in the web of skin between her thumb and forefinger...near collapse...in a fretful hybrid of sleep and wake...she felt she was raking and pitching hay all through the night.'
This is actually my third reading of Cold Mountain. It will not be my last.