Book Review: Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier

I read lots of books.  I’d read more of them if time allowed and I anticipate such a happy circumstance soon, as the date of my retirement approaches.   I read a good bit of non-fiction.  In the past few years, I’ve continued with my normal quota of theological (seminarians would laugh at me here and say that I should call the books I read “apologetics,” instead of theology)  books (I’m not a theologian or a minister, but I cut my intellectual teeth on C. S. Lewis) and I have lately picked up an enthusiasm for books about diet and exercise and brain health. Reading books such as these is, I think, life changing.  You walk away with wider knowledge and deeper convictions.

I have good friends who tell me that they never read books.  Reading is nothing but a chore for them.  I cannot imagine that.  How do you grow, otherwise?  How do you maintain any check on the propaganda in the media?

I read fiction, too.  Maybe not as much of it as non-fiction, but I do look for good stories.  I have to say that it is rarer – for me, at least – to find a novel that satisfies as much as a fine book on some political or scientific subject.  But when you do find a great novel, well, there is nothing like it.  You’ve got a friend for life.

C. S. Lewis, in his book An Experiment In Criticism, argues that there are two kinds of readers.  There are those – “the many,” he calls them – who read stories to “find out what happens.”  This sort of reader my come across a book in the library or store and begin reading it.  Ten pages in, when they realize that they’ve read the book before, they put it back onto the shelf.  It is used up, for all their purposes.

On the other hand, there are readers who find books they love and return to them, over and over.  There are passages that move them and for which their affection only deepens over time.  The memorize lines.  I am this second kind of reader.

I give you all of this prologue to explain why I am writing a review of Thirteen Moons when I have not yet finished the book.  I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book, but I am so moved that I am certain this book will be a favorite, no matter “what happens” in it.

The setting of the story is almost magical.  The protagonist lives in Virginia, sometime soon after the American Revolution.  He’s an orphan and at the ripe, old age of twelve, his guardians sell him off to a merchant who needs someone to run an outpost store in that part of the country that has not been mapped.   Accordingly, he lights out alone for the territories, horse, provisions and knife, but no gun.  And so begins this odyssey.  I am from Appalachia, myself and I am captivated by stories of what went on in this beautiful land of mine before the coming of the highways.  Frazier works this to great effect, telling convincing tales about wood lore, tribal customs, historical battles and personalities.

But the best thing about the book – at this point, anyhow – is the writing; the voice; the mode of expression.  Here’s an example:

Bear believed writing dulled the spirit.  Words, when they’ve been captured and              imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected.     Everything that happens is fluid, changeable.  After they’ve passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time.  Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall.  Every bit as stationary and every bit as false to the real thing.  Flat and still and harmless.  Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.

 

This is gorgeous, insightful writing, with something like an irony about it.  Here we have a paragraph about the limitations of the written word that, through its own excellence, proves if not an opposite, then at least a counter point.  That is, the written word, as so poetically expressed here, may actually add to and not subtract from reality as it is experienced and processed and remembered.

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