The recent resurgence in historical fiction arguably dates from the critical and popular success of North Carolinian Charles Frazier's memorable first novel, Cold Mountain. A romantic epic in the classic mold, this richly detailed saga of a Civil War deserter's homeward odyssey won the 1997 National Book Award and inspired a haunting 2003 feature film.
Classical precedent likewise informs and shapes Frazier's long-awaited second novel, in which a rootless and restless protagonist, like Cold Mountain's embattled hero, Inman, expends the energies of a long lifetime seeking permanent reunion with the only woman he'll ever love, who loves him in return yet moves in and out of his yearning orbit during the decades they are apart, but never entirely trusts him nor can bring herself to share his patchwork experience.
Like the beleaguered heroes of the books that are his lifelong sustenance, he's a visionary fixated on an ever-receding ideal: the noble knight Lancelot, cursed and burdened by his own divided and enervated loyalties.
She is Claire Featherstone, the ethereally beautiful young wife of a "white" (i.e. half-breed) Indian who prospers as a landowner and patriarch in the Cherokee Nation that stretches westward from the Carolinas to Oklahoma.
He is Will Cooper, an orphan and "bound boy" sold by his relatives to an "antique gentleman" who places adolescent Will in a moribund trading post on the edge of "the [Cherokee] Nation" - from which humble beginning he earns a vast fortune, bonds closely with his Cherokee neighbors and mentors (his conflicted friendship with the mercurial Featherstone overshadowed by his filial devotion to the equally prominent chief known as Bear), studies law and represents "his people" against the repressive policies of Indian-hating President Andrew Jackson, becomes a state senator and an itinerant buffer between the red men's and white men's worlds, all the while pursuing the memory, the dream and the promise of the elusive Claire.
Thirteen Moons brings this vanished world thrillingly to life, retelling the agonizing stories of "the Removal" (of Indians from their ancestral lands) and the lie of "Reconstruction"; creating literally dozens of heart-stopping word pictures (e.g. autumn's display of "a few stunted pumpkins still glowing in the fields and a few persistent apples hanging red in the skeletal orchards"); building unforgettable characterizations of the sorrow-laden everyman Will (whom we first, then finally, glimpse as a reclusive anachronism, weathered by "a near century of living"); unpredictable Featherstone and stoical Beat (a character Faulkner might have created); Claire who belongs to no man, ancient medicine woman Granny Squirrel, and all the uprooted and dispossessed souls enduring "the days and nights, the thirteen moons" of each accumulating year, while making their final journey "to the Nightland".
One of the great Native American - and American - stories, and a great gift to all of us, from one of our very best writers.