Cold Mountain: Summary
Summary for Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Atlantic Monthly Press Edition, 1997)
Summary, Chapter One (“the shadow of a crow”), pp.1-19
Cold Mountain opens with the novel’s main character, Inman, recovering from a near-fatal neck wound in a Civil War hospital in North Carolina, his home state. The war is in its fourth year, and Inman has taken part in many bloody battles: Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg, where he was wounded. He knows that when he is well enough, he will be sent back to the battlefield.
Inman wakes the same way he has for weeks, staring out a “window as tall as a door,” watching the unvarying summer scenery, and remembering his hometown of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Inman also watches for the blind man who comes daily to the lawn outside the hospital and boils peanuts to sell. On this day, Inman goes out to him and bluntly asks who put out his eyes. The man says that he was born without eyes. Inman is surprised; he has seen so much violence that he assumed the man was a victim of some violent act. He asks the man what he would give for ten minutes of sight, and the man says he would not want to have sight and then lose it. He would rather not know what he was missing.
The man asks Inman to name a time when he wished he were blind. Inman can think of many instances, but he tells the blind man about the battle at Fredericksburg, about the thousands of dead Federal soldiers stripped of their boots by Confederate soldiers, about the ominous aurora that appeared in the sky. He does not tell the man about a recurring, bloody dream that leaves him feeling “dark as the blackest crow that ever flew.”
When Inman returns to the ward, he reads from Bartram’s Travels, about a naturalist who traveled and studied the flora and fauna of the mountains. The descriptions make Inman think of Cold Mountain. He recites the names of landmarks around Cold Mountain as if they are “spells and incantations to ward off the things one fears most.”
Several days later, Inman walks into town and buys clothes, knives, a pot and a cup, and ammunition for his pistol. He also buys a pen, paper, and ink. He drinks coffee at an inn, and he reads about the war in the paper, particularly about how Cherokee troops have taken the scalps of Federal soldiers. He wonders if his Cherokee friend, Swimmer, is among those Cherokee. Inman’s mind takes him back to when he first met Swimmer one summer while camping in the mountains. Swimmer had told him Cherokee spells for keeping the spirit safe in a body.
Inman thinks about how his own spirit has “been about burned out of him” and left him empty as the “core of a big black-gum tree.” He is not sure anymore that there is a heaven, but he feels that Cold Mountain might heal and save him, if he can just get back to it. He begins a letter to a woman back in Cold Mountain (Ada Monroe). He tells her he will come home, but she may not want to see him when she realizes how changed he has become.
Inman returns to the hospital ward, where he discovers that the man in the bed next to his has died and will never finish the Greek translations he has labored over, even in the hospital. Later that night, Inman takes from under his bed knapsacks filled with his purchases and with food he has been hoarding. He tucks the Bartram book into a knapsack, ties on his packs, and steps out the tall window into the night.
Summary, Chapter two (“the ground beneath her hands”), pp. 20-5
Ada Monroe sits on the front porch of the farm house that has been hers since her father died in May. Over the summer, Black Cove Farm has been severely neglected. Ada has no money to run it, the farm workers have left, and Ada, born and bred in privilege in Charleston, has no idea how to run a farm herself. In addition, she cannot even cook for herself. Ada is both lonely and starving; she grieves for her gentle father, a minister who moved them to Black Cove because of his bad health, yet she resents that he never taught her anything practical. Her knowledge of music and art and literature are useless here. She feels like a complete failure.
She cannot even pen a decent letter. She attempts to write her feelings to a young man (Inman), telling him that she is committed to an open and frank relationship, despite his absence. Her words do not come out as she wants, however, and she tears up the letter.
She decides, instead, to go on her daily hunt for eggs, and she crawls under a boxwood bush to search for them. While there, she is attacked by a vicious rooster. She barely has the energy to clean herself up after the attack; she doesn’t care that her hair is simply loose or that she has no clean clothes. All she can find the will to do is sit in a chair by the window and read, sometimes looking out at the view of Cold Mountain, a view so different—so harsh—compared to Charleston.
After a visit to her father’s grave by the church, Ada stops by the Swanger farm in hopes that they might offer her a meal. Sally and Esco Swanger have been very kind to Ada, in their homespun way. The three of them sit comfortably on the porch, talking of the war (which the Swangers do not support, although their sons are off fighting) and of the Home Guard, vigilantes who mercilessly hunt down deserters or traitors to the Confederacy. Esco and Sally also talk about the “signs” they’ve seen of a coming hard winter, and Esco further lists bad omens that foretell “evil times.” Ada agrees to Esco’s suggestion that she take a mirror and look backwards into the Swangers’ well to foretell her own future. She does so to humor Esco, but when she actually sees a figure in black walking towards her—or perhaps away?—she is shaken. Is she meant to follow the figure, or wait for his return?
On Ada’s walk back to Black Cove that day, she recalls how the land around Cold Mountain seemed so foreign to her and her father upon their arrival. The mountain people are hardworking, yet taciturn, suspicious of strangers. Now, however, Ada finds that Cold Mountain has taken root in her. She resolves to find a way to survive there.
Help appears in the form of Ruby Thewes. Ruby has no mother, and her father is a shiftless alcoholic. At Sally Swanger’s suggestion, she comes to Black Cove to offer her knowledge and services to Ada—not as a servant but as an equal. As Ada and Ruby work out their living and working arrangements, the mean rooster appears by the porch, and Ada tells Ruby how she hates the rooster.
Ruby, in one motion, wrings the rooster’s neck and suggests they cook him. Dinner that night is unlike any Ada has managed to make for herself: stewed chicken and big, fat dumplings in a rich broth.
Analysis, Chapters 1-2
The first two chapters of Cold Mountain work in tandem to establish the setting in which the novel’s two main characters, Inman and Ada Monroe, journey toward one another and toward self-knowledge. The overall setting is a South churned up by war. Soldiers and citizens alike are displaced, uprooted from the homes, families, and occupations that once sustained them. Not only has Inman been physically wounded, but he has also been spiritually wounded. The nightmares of the battlefield haunt him, and he feels adrift, empty inside. Likewise, Ada finds herself alone, empty and adrift. The woman she was bred to be—cultured and genteel—has no substance in a world without money, servants, and social gatherings.
The more particular setting of Cold Mountain is the landscape around Cold Mountain, North Carolina, itself. Cold Mountain is not just a place, it is an idea. To Inman’s battered spirit, Cold Mountain “. . . soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather.” It is “the idea of another world, a better place,” and he knows he must get back to it in order to have a chance at healing himself. For Ada, the mountain is a solid, strong presence in the midst of chaos. She is still an outsider to Cold Mountain and its inhabitants, but the “blue bulk” of the mountain compels her to stay because it is the one thing “that she could count on.” For both Inman and Ada, Cold Mountain represents their better selves.
Getting back to Inman’s better self—and in Ada’s case, finding her better self—will prove to be a long journey for both. The first two chapters of Cold Mountain introduce the pattern that the novel will follow, that of dual journeys to the same destination. Frazier had Homer’s Odyssey in the back of his mind as he wrote Cold Mountain, as well as fairy tales and Appalachian folk tales. When Inman steps out the window of the hospital, he undertakes a journey in which he, like Odysseus, will cross all kinds of people—and all kinds of obstacles. Ada, like Penelope, is the woman left behind, but she ventures into a whole other country as soon as Ruby Thewes appears to lead her there. No longer will she simply look out the window at Cold Mountain, she will step out toward it and know the “ground beneath her hands.”
In setting up the pattern of the novel, the first two chapters also set up important motifs. The color black appears several times in these chapters, especially in connection with crows and with nature. Crows are often associated with evil, but they are also, in Indian legends, associated with cleverness and wily survival. The first chapter’s title, “the shadow of the crow,” suggests that Inman’s journey is to be shadowed by both evil and survival in the face of that evil. In chapter two, black is a prominent color, especially in the landscape. At this point in the novel, black seems to signify the despair and insecurity Ada feels; she cannot see her way in this landscape. However, as Ada learns to embrace the landscape in other chapters, the color black takes on a less negative association.