With a keen eye for detail and a shrewd observation of the flawed human heart, best-selling author Charles Frazier returns to Appalachia to pay tribute to the land and natives who shaped him as a writer.
His third novel, "Nightwoods" (Random House), is a literary page-turner set in the 1960s in small-town North Carolina. A gritty tale with as many plot twists as a curvy mountain road, the tale unfolds around a woman named Luce, who is taking care of her niece and nephew after the murder of her sister. They live in an abandoned lodge owned by a character named Stubblefield, who has inherited the run-down property.
The setting is intentional. Frazier has made it his literary mission to dispel the stereotypes of Appalachian people as ignorant hillbillies. "There is such an oversimplification of mountain culture," says the 60-year-old Frazier, on the phone from his Asheville home. "I like to present a kind of bigger picture of place and history, especially for people who have never spent much time here."
After all, this is the same soil that produced the award-winning author of "Cold Mountain" and former English professor. Yet Frazier recalls that while working at a university in Denver, a faculty member was shocked Frazier had a doctorate in English. "She seemed surprised I had shoes on. She expected a guy on the porch with a coon dog at his feet."
It was in the little town of Andrews, where Frazier was surrounded by more mountains and forest than people, that he learned to create the fully rendered images of nature that have become a hallmark of his writing.
"Nightwoods" has received mostly good reviews, though critics have noted some shortcomings. In its review, Publishers Weekly wrote that "Frazier's characters lack nuance (they are either very, very good or very, very bad) and his prose is often self-consciously folksy. But his great strength is the tenderness with which he renders the relationships at the core of this book, creating a compelling meditation on violence and the possibility that human love can heal even the deepest wound."
Nancy Olson, the owner of Quail Ridge Books, says she's noticed that often reviewers don't understand the language and vernacular of Appalachia, so they criticize it. She likens Frazier's new work to his most famous. " 'Nightwoods' reminds you of 'Cold Mountain' in the connection to nature and the characterizations. The landscape of the mountain is like a character. ... The writing is beautiful and lyrical. Some writers have excellent plots, and some excellent characterization. He has both."
"Cold Mountain," published in 1996, spent 61 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover and 33 weeks on the paperback list. There are more than 4 million copies in print. The novel won the National Book Award among other prizes. It was also made into movie starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger, who earned an Academy Award for her performance.
Frazier's second novel, "Thirteen Moons," tells the story of the forced removal of 17,000 Native Americans, which would become known as the Trail of Tears.
With "Nightwoods," Frazier decided to change directions, moving away from historical fiction. "This one I wanted to have some elements of a film noir ... I wanted to write a shorter book than the two previous ones and one that moved at a different space. This one only covers four months," says Frazier.
Still, like his other stories, isolation is one of the book's themes. Frazier says he's interested in whether people isolate themselves from their communities or communities isolate themselves from certain members, and how those people reconnect with the world. Luce and the other characters are struggling with their inability to belong.
Another strain that runs through the book is responsibility. "Luce doesn't have a model in her life," Frazier says. "She has no real desire to be a mother of her sister's kids. She has to deal with their difficulties and peculiarities and connect them with the world."
While Frazier placed Luce in Appalachia, this woman exists everywhere. It is a portrait of a lonely woman, trying to find her place in the world. And Frazier keeps writing about the place he knows well, trying to explain its humanity.
"I have lived in different parts of the country," Frazier says. "Ignorance is everywhere you go and the opposite is everywhere you go, if you look for it."