I ask your indulgence here, as I define the term: “A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree, engaged in menial tasks and making his living more through his wits than his industry.” In addition, the protagonist’s exploits involve journeys into exotic and colorful regions. However, at the story’s conclusion the protagonist “always returns to his origins.”
This, dear reader, is an apt description of Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons.
Classic examples of picaresque writing include the following: (1) “a series of thrilling incidents impossible to conceive as happening in one life.” (2) “The hero engages in a series of pranks and predicaments that sometimes involve people of historic significance.” (3) The writing is characterized by descriptive narratives that contain “a faithfulness to petty detail.”
Well-known examples of “the picaresque” range from Don Quixote and romantic versions of Arthurian legends (The Knight of the Cart) to the popular Jack Tales of Southern Appalachia. Now, with that said, let us consider the plot of Thirteen Moons.
Frazier’s long-awaited second novel concerns the life of one Will Cooper, a hapless orphan who, at the age of 12, is sent into a North Carolina wilderness near the Cherokee village of Wayah (circa 1810). He is a “bound boy.” Essentially, that means that young Will has been sold into something akin to indentured servitude — he is a clerk in a frontier trading post for an absentee owner.
However, left to his own devices, Will quickly demonstrates a talent for shrewd trading, card playing and parlaying the store’s shoddy stock into a profitable enterprise. At this point, he meets three remarkable people: Bear, an alcoholic Cherokee chief who frequents the trading post; the mysterious, beautiful Claire Featherstone (Will initially wins her in a poker game); and her patron/guardian/husband, who becomes, in the language of the times, Will’s “nemesis.”
Before long, Cooper’s autobiography begins to assume mythic trappings. The little colt that Will brings into this wilderness becomes the magnificent stallion, Waverley, a life-long companion. Young Cooper finds his new life characterized by robust appetites, whether it is for food (he is a gourmet cook), vintage wines and/or lovemaking. (He and the sensual Claire combine the Cherokee practice of “going to water” with a gift for sexual acrobatics and sunbathing.)
Many of the colorful personages that Will encounters are in the process of “becoming legends” in their own right. Bear, who becomes Will’s “adopted father,” excels as a drunkard, an ardent lover, a hunter, a storyteller and a kind of visionary. Granny Squirrel, a 200-year-old witch and shaman, lives on a fog-shrouded mountain where she dispenses love potions and charms. Cooper and Bear, both subject to painful yearning and lovesickness, are regular customers.
Along the way, Will Cooper encounters an impressive parthenon of heroes and villains: a weasel-eyed and despicable Andrew Jackson; a blustering and doomed Davy Crockett; and John C. Calhoun, who sees into Will Cooper’s heart and finds it a sad affair.
However, the most memorable meeting is with T’sali, the reluctant Cherokee martyr. It is a provocative and controversial episode — especially in a region where readers of Thirteen Moons will have conflicting (and unrealistic) expectations on how Frazier should portray this event. In this version, Cooper and Bear betray T’sali in exchange for the land that will become the Qualla Boundary. (In a long life of duplicity and shady dealings, Cooper is haunted by this singular betrayal.) Years later, he will meet T’sali’s son, Wasseton, on a street in Tahlequah with no weapon at his disposal other than his “legendary gift for gab.”
In reading Thirteen Moons, we should be mindful of Frazier’s advice to his readers. This is a work of fiction. The author is under no obligation to construct his tale in accordance to “alleged” historical facts.
Frazier, like all authors of fiction, is free to play God with his creation. He can create a world that is a fanciful version of a prosaic reality. Consequently, snows become deeper, mountains are higher and the lackluster lives of knaves and heroes acquire a kind of flawed nobility.
Will Cooper is not William Holland Thomas. Unfortunately, there is no Claire Featherstone in Thomas’ life, just as there were no duels, no visits to Granny Squirrel and no romantic overland journey (prompted by unrequited love) to Tahlequah, Okla. It seems equally doubtful that Thomas repeatedly read The Knight of the Cart, The Sorrows of Young Werther and Don Quixote or wrote touching poems to his missing lover.
However, the most telling difference is in personality. Will Cooper relates his life with self-effacing irony. Above all he finds a dark humor in his life and readily acknowledges his pretensions and self-serving motives. This is a quality that is not in evidence in diaries and biographies of William Holland Thomas.
Yet, there are significant parallels. Like Thomas, Will Cooper is adopted by an aging Cherokee chief, and like Thomas, Frazier’s rascal of a hero becomes the “white chief of the Cherokees,” using his skills as a lawyer to acquire a significant tract of land which will become a home for the small number of Cherokees who managed to avoid the Removal.
Cooper also spends years in Washington devising strategies (often fraudulent or devious) to avoid Removal and/or to enhance the Cherokee holdings. Both Cooper and Holland prove to be dismal and often clownish Confederate officers during the Civil War.
Throughout Thirteen Moons, Will Cooper makes numerous references to Appalachian Jack Tales. His favorites are the ones in which Jack encounters a magic object that enables him to acquire wealth and respect. In old tales like “Fill, Tub, Fill,” Will finds a parallel to his own life. He, too, has acquired (undeserved) success. Will Cooper (who has much in common with “the trickster” in American folklore) feels that his life resembles a tale of a mythic, lucky hero ... like Jack. However, in time, the riches vanish and the rascal/hero is left to reflect on his misspent life.
The last scene in Thirteen Moons could easily serve as a parable that sums up Will Cooper’s life. Our aged protagonist is sitting on the porch of his home watching for the train that chugs through his yard each day, spewing smoke and soot. Will amuses himself by shooting at the train with a shotgun. (He owns stock in the railroad, so they tolerate him.) Will hates the train, yet he is partially responsible for its existence. In the house, Will’s new telephone rings. Will hates it, too ... but the voices on the other end may ... or may not be the ever-evasive Claire.
Thirteen Moons contains achingly beautiful passages of snowfalls, fog-wrapped rivers and moonlit forests. There are ribald and hilarious events, too, including a description of the Cherokee Booger Dance that is a masterpiece of satire. The love affair between Cooper and Claire threads its way through this pseudo-historic epic like a brilliant, scarlet ribbon. There is also a melancholy refrain that celebrates a wondrous time and place that is gone and will never return.
Thirteen Moons celebrates a world as it “could have been,” or as it “should have been.” Perhaps, that is enough.