Set in the early 1960s, Charles Frazier’s third novel, Nightwoods, returns to the author’s familiar terrain of the rural mountains of North Carolina, which served as the backdrop for his two other novels, Cold Mountain, the bestselling book that won the National Book Award in 1997 and was adapted into a popular film directed by Anthony Minghella, and Thirteen Moons, which was published in 2006 to rather lesser acclaim
Nightwoods, Frazier’s new novel, is a departure from its predecessors in some respects. It’s set in the early 1960s rather than the 19th century, and it involves no literary or historical elements of comparable grandeur and gravity (the Civil War, the Trail of Tears). Indeed, the new book feels remarkably stripped down: it follows Luce, an idiosyncratic young woman living off the land as she attempts to care for her recently orphaned niece and nephew, Dolores and Frank who have witnessed the brutal murder of their own mother by the hands of their ruthless stepfather, the intense trauma of the event having left them literally speechless
Luce and the children live on the remote margins of a small town. After suffering a personal trauma herself, Luce has discovered much-needed solace and isolation in a job as the caretaker of an abandoned lodge on a lake surrounded by dense woods. Prior to the twins’ arrival, she constructs a makeshift living space in the cavernous lobby of the lodge with a daybed, bookshelves of “well-read old novels,” and a radio tuned to a Nashville station that broadcasts the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and James Brown
Together, the unlikely threesome create an unconventional life at the lodge and find their way around an untamed, natural world of southern Appalachia. “The light was filtered and green, and their footsteps fell silent in the dead needles that lay a million years deep,” writes Frazier about one adventure that Luce and the two children take into the woods. “Dodging giant fallen trunks, nurse logs sprouting moss and ferns and new hemlock saplings from their own brown decay. The children kept to the line. They went downslope until the contour of the land leveled into a clearing.” Luce tries to teach the children about the dangers of fire, the names of plants, the stars and music
Unknown to Luce, stepfather Bud has escaped conviction due to the skills of a wily lawyer, and is intent on hunting down the stash of robbed cash Luce’s sister Lily hid before he killed her. The only souls who may know the whereabouts of the money are the twins. Lit, a police officer and World War II vet addicted to uppers and downers, offers up complications to this plan. Simultaneously (and conveniently for the inevitable film), the eligible grandson of the deceased caretaker of the lodge, Stubblefield, is heading to look over his new inheritance
This suspense is further intensified as the author shifts from the past to the present tense in the third section of the novel - and the chase moves into the mountains. “It’s dead winter up on the ridges,” writes Frazier during a scene when the twins ride by pony farther up into the wilderness, “all the bare sticks of trees like weather-beaten skeletons broken into forearms and hands, rib cages, shins and feet. Some resigned to horizontal death and some still trying to reach upward. They ride the cold ridges deeper and deeper into the mountains, but with less urgency now that they’re high above the world.”
In anyone else’s hands, this might turn out to be a gripping but ultimately forgettable thriller. Frazier, however, is a writer whose spare prose oozes atmosphere - you can almost smell the verdant pine trees and hear the crack of twigs underfoot. The history of the place - Cherokee Indians turfed out by Spaniards and then American settlers - wafts through, adding a richness and depth. Whether of landscapes, customs or people, Frazier’s perception is acute: “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 grey sky”
Vulnerable children are notoriously difficult to portray in fiction without sentimentality or bathos. Frazier’s stoical approach is dignified yet conjures up disturbing images. When the twins hide in a dangerous spot on the mountain where one step would hurtle them to their deaths, “the stuff they fear is unrelated to a hole in the ground … The horror is other people. The things they think up to do to you.”
Some of the action seems designed with the movie rather than plausibility in mind - the serendipity with which love blossoms; the ease with which Bud procures a job as the dry town’s procurer of alcohol - but Frazier is sage enough to cast a few obstacles in the way
And beneath the chilling, photogenic story, the writing remains beautiful. A moment of quiet symbolism in the forest captures the heartless rules of nature in which the strong kill the weak at every level: “Under the hemlock, everything lies dark and quiet … Listen hard and you hear a sound like the ticking of many wristwatches, the fall of dead needles, building in tiny increments a deep thousand-year bed to kill weaker things that try to grow underneath.” Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed
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