Charles Frazier. Nightwoods.
New York: Random House, 2011.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald
Set in rural North Carolina in the early 1960’s, Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods exhibits strengths that readers have come to expect from his two earlier novels, Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moon: characters who are on the fringes of society, intelligent beyond their levels of education; a reverence for the rugged mountainous terrain taken from the Cherokees but still inhabited by their spirit of independence; and beautifully crafted writing which develops the action smoothly. Throughout the novel, Frazier leaves verbal mileposts—profound and poetic observations which hint at the universality of the action and the characters.
Living in an abandoned lodge, Luce is a young woman, secluded for years following a violent attack. Her mistrust of the society, which had failed to protect her or punish her attacker, is heightened when she takes in the young twin children of Lily, her murdered sister. The children, Dolores and Frank, traumatized by their brutal stepfather’s stabbing of their mother, have withdrawn, refusing to speak and lashing out physically when people try to confront them. Luce takes them so that they will not be institutionalized for being “feebleminded.” With no experience in child-rearing, Luce struggles to find ways to communicate with the hostile children, whose favorite activity seems to be burning things, including an abandoned house and the lodge in which they are staying. Luce’s dedication to the children is heightened because of her own lawman/father’s failures to care for her and protect her—a relationship reminiscent of Ruby and Stobrod’s in Cold Mountain. When a potential love interest appears, Luce is unable to commit to a relationship because she is damaged and untrusting. But her dedication to the children enables her to reach beyond herself as she must bring the children into civilization, while protecting them from their vicious stepfather.
Bud, the stepfather, is a small-time criminal, whose few successful ventures are short-lived due to his heavy drinking and general profligacy. Angered when Lily hides his small fortune of ill-gotten money, he kills her, stabbing her repeatedly in front of the children. When his slick lawyer manages to outwit an inexperienced prosecutor, Bud is acquitted; he sets out to find the twins, believing that they know of the money’s location. After months of searching, he bullies his way into an illegal liquor operation, all the time seeking the opportunity to pounce upon Dolores and Frank and retrieve “his” money. Ironically, he spends a great deal of time with Lit, a drug-dependent police officer—who happens to be Luce and Lily’s father. This is hardly a friendship—more of a professional relationship built on mutual mistrust. Bud’s arrogant, belligerent approach yields some success, but there is never a question that he is –and always will be—an outsider. When the children realize that he is stalking them, they take a horse and run away blindly into the mountains. Bud pursues, but is unprepared for the potential hostility of nature towards one who does not respect it.
Stubblefield, the heir of the property on which Luce is living, is more of a city boy, ill-equipped to understand or deal with life in rural North Carolina. But he is a kind, compassionate, gentle, and patient young man, who instinctively knows whom he can trust and love. As in Cold Mountain, the physical love story is not in the foreground. There are more important issues to deal with: rescuing the children from their world of retreat in which they have become savage creatures; protecting the twins and Luce from the machinations of Bud, who is the personification of evil; learning how to adapt to this near-wilderness in which Luce has found comfort and refuge; and breaking through the wall of psychological defenses that she has erected to isolate herself.
Frazier’s love of this territory—the former home of the Cherokee nation—permeates his novels. There is a wealth of inspiration available for those who open themselves to the mystical presence of the Native Americans—and to the instructive powers of Nature. There are also the potentially devastatingly punishing powers which can strike those who do not respect Nature. The climactic chase scenes resolve plot issues, while also underlining man’s feeble attempts to shape his own fate.
All of Frazier’s novels provide ample evidence of his word-crafting. His descriptions, his dialogues, and his commentaries are rich with figurative language that flavors his feelings about the principal characters and their world. Evaluating Lit, “Stubblefield tried to call up the name of some little slim twitchy mammal that could squirm through the cracks of a henhouse and kill every bird in the place.” As the corrupt lawman and the bootlegger conversed, “…Lit began feeling like Bud was reading his mind. Like maybe signals passed between them along the order of Freemasons with their deep verbal codes and intricate handshakes.” As Stubblefield tried to piece together fragments of information about Luce’s past, “He felt like a Depression-era WPA writer interviewing a reticent ninety-year-old about the great flood of 1873 and, at the same time, some half-folkloric riverboat race where a boiler blew….Get a little bit of one story and then a little bit of the other, and never be entirely sure how not to believe either.”
Nightwoods is an entertaining read, presenting insights into a deceptively profound subculture: the Appalachian community, living remote, simple lives while being buttressed by a strong moral code and a reverence for Nature.
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 40 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.