Charles Frazier's new novel, Thirteen Moons, doesn't go much of anywhere. Unlike his Cold Mountain, which used The Odyssey as a mythic underpinning to the Civil War's aftermath, Thirteen Moons meanders throughout its protagonist's life from boyhood to old age, from servitude to wealth, from the civilized East to the Cherokee Nation, and back to Washington, D.C. Readers looking for a strong plotline will be frustrated by Frazier's reticence at the novel's most cinematic moments. But Thirteen Moons is far from the sophomore disaster predicted by conventional wisdom. In fact, Frazier's narrator, Will Cooper, functions as a deliberate counterpoint to the expectations engendered by Cold Mountain; Frazier asks readers to provide their own apology for Will's life while weaving a lost world in elegant, unstudied prose.
Will's parents sell him at the age of 12 to run a failing trade outpost in the early 19th century's version of the Wild West: western Tennessee, where Sequoyah had just given the Cherokee the first written language of any Indian tribe. There, Will meets the imposing but fatally flawed village chief, Bear, and falls in love with Claire, the young ward of local boss Featherstone. But blinded by The Sorrows Of Young Werther and adolescent ego, he mistakes both who Claire is and who he himself could be, ping-ponging between Indian ways and white ambition. Eventually he uses his homegrown law education to carve out a space for his adopted tribe in the mountains during the Trail Of Tears, and parlays that experience into elected office in the newly minted national capital. At the end of his life, he tries to set the record straight about what was legend, and what was history.
Throughout Thirteen Moons, the tone slides from regret to amused debunking to outright shame, as Will describes his struggles to apprehend the Anglo-native relationship. His contention, and Frazier's, is that it has little to do with the big moments—the battles, the treaties, the famous Indian fighter. At key moments, Will simply refuses to judge at all, offering multiple versions of his famous duel with Featherstone because it doesn't matter which one is true. Frazier sets it down in sentences as unhurried as the Mississippi, letting polished gems peek through the Tennessee red clay. It's far from a page-turner, but Thirteen Moons offers the kind of beauty no one should rush through just to find out what happens.