In the opening pages of his new novel, North Carolina writer Charles Frazier describes the arrival of two mysterious children into the care of his protagonist, Luce, a lonely single woman caretaking a derelict lakeside lodge in Appalachia in the 1960s. As Luce talks over the unexpected delivery of these twins with the state official handing them off to her, the children explore their new homeplace:
“She watched the children rove wordlessly about the yard in front of the Lodge. Going slow, but in some purposeful pattern, assessing the space like a pair of water witches looking for the right spot to dig a well.”
What American writer of stature draws more from his settings than Charles Frazier? Since he came onto the American literary scene, Frazier has been roving his native Blue Ridge Mountains like a dowser to find choice stories uniquely suited to his voice and caretaking.
His phenomenally successful first novel, Cold Mountain (1997), transposed the wanderings of Odysseus from high tides to high lands. Inman, an injured, disillusioned Civil War soldier sojourns home through many dangers, toils and snares, finding each unfolding blue ridge of his native mountains a new chapter book of danger and adventure.
Thirteen Moons (2006) similarly taps the story lode of the Blue Ridge. This time, Frazier unscrolled the sorry saga of the displacement of the Cherokee people, one of the most sophisticated Native American cultures of the Western Hemisphere. Old, deep wounds must be nursed, and the mountains hold those stories even today. Consider that certain people of Cherokee descent even now will not carry a $20 bill on their person. Why? The bill bears the image of Andrew Jackson, the military leader (and later U.S. President) responsible for transporting the Cherokee off their native lands and into the western lands on the infamous Trail of Tears.
Nightwoods depends a great deal, like these predecessor novels, on the supercontext of Appalachia—its landforms, rhythms, customs, superstitions, dialects. One can look from the promontory of this third book over Frazier’s publishing career and see how wholly a sense of place shapes him as a novelist. I can’t think of any notable American writer since Faulkner more fully invested in his tiny postage stamp of the world—or in this case his mountain fastness—than Frazier.
Nightwoods brings Frazier’s writing at least 100 years forward in time from his previous books. On hearing of the novel’s 1960s period setting, readers wondered how a more contemporary tale would suit the writer’s indisputable talents as a historic tale-spinner. They needn’t have worried. The novel offers an edgy, blood-limned, grim fairy tale, fenced round by the search of a troubled almost-family looking for closures and healing. It all comes lovingly dressed in the same sharp period detail you expect from Frazier, in full service to suspense, revenge, redemption and lots of other old human verities.
Here’s Frazier’s story. Despite misgivings, Luce takes in Frank and Dolores, the troubled twins, who aren’t yet school age. Problems immediately suggest themselves.
“The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side, mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in shades of olive until they became lost in the pale gray sky. Luce watched the girl and boy climb out of the backseat of a chalky-white Ford sedan and stand together, square to the world. Not really glaring, but with a manner of looking at you and yet not at you. Predatory, with their eyes very much to the fronts of their faces and scoping their surroundings. For whatever next prospect might present itself, but not wanting to spook anybody. Not yet. Foxes entering henhouses, was the way Luce saw it.”
The children do not speak, and it’s plain soon enough that trauma lies at the root of the dysfunction. The twins witnessed the murder of their own mother, Luce’s sister, at the hands of a man who remains at large and who stalks them. He likely abused the children, and their young defenses now insulate them from all other people. Their hurts occasionally flare into expression in less-than-healthy ways. Luce learns very quickly not to leave the twins alone with chickens, for instance. Or with combustible materials.
Luce has her own issues, in the meantime. Her mother abandoned Luce and Lily as little girls, leaving them in the care of their father, a small, lethal ex-GI who works as deputy in the small town across the lake. Imagine Barney Fife as a WWII veteran able to whip men twice his size and take joy in doing it. Throw in a pill habit, and you have Luce’s dear old dad.
Luce carries more baggage. One very bad night after high school, a man raped her during her night shift at the phone company. She walked off her post, leaving the phones to ring uselessly when the high school caught on fire the same evening. A couple of Luce’s personal prospects—for a trusting relationship with men, for any responsible job in her community ever—went up in smoke with the school.
The novel’s love interest, Stubblefield, shows up shortly after the twins. He’s inherited the lakeside lodge and a few other timeworn properties in the area, but he’s mostly interested in Luce. Since his teen-age years, Stubblefield’s torch has burned for the pretty, damaged girl, and he sets out to woo and win Luce. He’s patient. He’s a partner, sharing lovingly in Luce’s attempt to draw the twins out of their feral shells.
Finally, there’s that problematic bad guy stalking the twins. Bud has gotten away with murder thanks to a sharp lawyer, but he believes a stash of stolen money went with Lily’s things to the twins—enough money to put him on easy street. Trying to find it, he shows up at the lodge and frightens the kids into heading for the hills. Setting up the book’s climax, Bud goes after them into the mountain wilds with a sharp machete and some very poor judgment.
Bud comes from bad seed. He wears a tattoo heart on his bicep, but that cosmetic organ seems to be where human charity begins and ends for him. Frazier asks us to believe that his depravity and ruthlessness stem from a twisted religious upbringing. It strikes me as the book’s single false note. After so many other literary and cinematic occurrences, does it seem pat to blame religion for yet another pathology?
Nevermind. There’s joy in the reading of this work. Like the mountains encircling the lake—and the crucible of this tale—Frazier’s prose is consistently majestic, changing to match the seasons, to set the tone of scenes, to let through the cloud cover of fiction whatever lovely light the story needs.
He can also deliver smirking, funny riffs on a few pet peeves (one presumes), like this one dished out by Luce on deer hunters: “Nothing but drunks with high-powered rifles and a two-dollar paper license issued by the State. Coon hunters are nocturnal, and bear hunters go deeper in the mountains. You hear their dogs baying miles away. But deer hunters, they’re the scary ones. Hiding in camouflage, mostly two by two in deer stands, little tree houses the size of a double bed, above spots they’ve been baiting with corn and salt blocks for weeks, about as sporting as shooting a hog with its head down in the trough. They huddle together, whispering to each other and sipping Jack and Coke all day, waiting for something to move. Late afternoon, half drunk and nothing to show for the day, they get twitchy. Pop a shot at falling leaves and cloud shadows moving on the ground. No court ever convicts them for a hunting accident. How could they have known that some woman walking through the woods alone was not a deer? But, Luce says, she never worries much once she’s a least a mile out from the nearest dirt road. They rarely get far from their trucks, because that’s where the beer cooler is. Which explains why jacklighting is so popular. That way, sometimes they don’t even have to get out of the truck, just roll down the window and pull the trigger. So what they know of the woods is nothing but a thin band stretching from the roadway only as far as they’d care to drag a field-dressed doe.”
The moral here? If you go into the mountains, go deep.
Nightwoods, a tale well told, doesn’t make the same go-for-broke grab at immortality as Frazier’s first two books. But there’s something beautiful in its own right in watching one of our best writers settle down on the literary landscape where he’s staked his claim. Frazier has cleared the land, wrestled out the stumps, run his fences. He’s cultivating now, working his mountain plots to raise more stories we’ll likely visit time and again.
Charles McNair is Books Editor at Paste Magazine and author of the novel Land O’ Goshen.