This weekend, we’re launching the latest Assembly project, a monthly literary newsletter on all things books in the Old North State.
Acclaimed author Wiley Cash will helm a monthly dive into the best North Carolina has to offer as our new books editor. This will include older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts.
You can sign up for the newsletter here.
In 1997, North Carolina native Charles Frazier won the National Book Award for Cold Mountain. Last year, North Carolina native and longtime resident Jason Mott won the National Book Award for his novel Hell of a Book.
What do these two novels, both of which are set in North Carolina, tell us about the state?
More importantly, what do they tell us about race and race relations in a state that lost more people during the Civil War than any other in the Confederacy; where Reconstruction and fusionist politics forged a thriving Black middle class in Wilmington before the only successful coup in American history? A state that, in Greensboro, became the site of early protests at segregated lunch counters in 1960, as well as a murderous Ku Klux Klan attack 20 years later? A state where a white man born in the mountains in 1950 and a Black man born near the coast in 1978 anchored award-winning novels?
Cold Mountain was Frazier’s debut novel; he’s published three novels since. It tells the story of W.P. Inman, an injured Confederate soldier who deserts from a hospital near Raleigh. He sets out on foot to return home to the mountains, where he hopes to rekindle a romance with Ada Monroe, a Charleston-bred socialite who is eking out a living as a hardscrabble farmer. Inman’s trip is fraught with near-death experiences, hiding out from roving bands of Confederate home guards while contending with the psychological horrors of the war he seeks to leave behind.
Hell of a Book is Mott’s fourth novel. His 2013 debut The Returned was an instant New York Times bestseller and went on to become an ABC television series called Resurrection. In it, an unnamed author is also blazing west, albeit faster than Inman, on tour in support of a blockbuster novel, also called Hell of a Book. But here’s the thing: the author doesn’t have any memory of writing the book. He has only the vaguest memory of who he is and where he’s from. The author even has to be told that he’s Black. To complicate things further, he’s being followed by the ghostly apparition of a young Black boy known as The Kid, who may or may not have been the victim of police violence.
In a separate narrative, the reader is introduced to a young Black boy nicknamed Soot who lives in Bolton, North Carolina, and is slowly coming to terms with the ways life is limited for boys who look like him. At the novel’s climax, the community’s leaders ask the author to return home to eastern North Carolina to be a voice of protest after police kill a young Black boy.
At their core, both Cold Mountain and Hell of a Book are love stories. But while Cold Mountain is a love story between two people forged amid the destruction of war, Hell of a Book is a love story in which a Black man and a Black boy try to love themselves amid psychological carnage. One novel is about the trauma of surviving a violent war; the other is about the trauma of surviving a violent society.
In both, trauma not only affects the way these characters see (or don’t see) their pasts but also limits the possibilities for their future. Early on in Hell of a Book, Soot’s father watches as his son grows weary over the repeated news stories of violence done to Black children at the hands of the police and the criminal justice system. But the father knows it’s necessary to prepare his child, and has “the talk” that so many Black parents must deliver about how they will be treated differently because of their skin color. The narrator refers to these warnings as “the bonsai of a child,” meaning that “with each word, his son would be capable of a little less love, capable of a little less imagination, capable of a little less life.”
As Inman draws closer to his destination in Cold Mountain, he briefly allows himself to imagine reuniting with Ada, perhaps even marrying her and one day holding a grandchild on his knee. But he catches himself, understanding that “to believe such an event might actually happen required deep faith in right order.” From what he has witnessed of the war and his journey home, that kind of faith is in “such short supply.” He worries that his soul is ruined, unable to sustain expectations of happiness that, before the war, seemed like the natural course of one’s life.
Inman’s fatalist mindset is a result of the poisons of a war waged to uphold white supremacy and secure the subjugation of Black bodies; his own trauma is the result of the infective potency of racism. Racism has diseased the landscape and the people that inhabit it—a “foul region” where “the forest looked to be a sick and dangerous place.”
The author in Hell of a Book has a similar response when he returns to eastern North Carolina. “I know all the smells: humidity, pine trees, thinly veiled racism,” he says upon deplaning. But the author acknowledges that not all markers of racism here are thinly veiled.
Down in this part of the world we got it all: fifty-foot Confederate flags planted along the interstate, statues put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy, plantations where you can have wedding pictures taken of the way things used to be; we got lynchings, riots, bombings, shrimp and grits, and even muscadine grapes.
But the author’s feelings are more complicated and nuanced than Inman’s. While Inman is escaping to the western mountains, the author is forced to return to eastern North Carolina to confront his conflicting feelings after a lifetime of fleeing his childhood home. While he calls the South “America’s longest-running crime scene,” he also admits that “in spite of everything I know about it, I’ve always loved the South.”
The farther west Inman travels the clearer the air seems to be, the more beautiful the long-range vistas of the Blue Ridge, and the more his heart allows him to imagine a hopeful future. When he and Ada are briefly reunited, they hunker down in an abandoned Cherokee village during a blizzard, spending a night in one another’s arms and dreaming of “an imaginary marriage, the years passing happy and peaceful.” The irony of enjoying the freedom of these imaginings in a village where an entire civilization was nearly decimated at the hands of white supremacy is not lost on Frazier, or Ada and Inman for that matter. They understand that “[t]hese people’s fears had been fully realized. The wider world had found them, even hidden here, and had fallen on them with all its weight.”
The world has fallen on Hell of a Book’s author and Soot, too. But unlike Ada and Inman, who can opt out of a poisonous system they have helped sustain, the author and Soot cannot. Their only hope to survive the trauma of racial violence is to either erase their sense of self or succumb to the reality of being trimmed away like a bonsai. Until we are all able to confront those crimes and secure justice, as the ghostly Kid tells us in the book’s closing pages, “I’m not sure we could face that reality.”
Whether it’s the Civil War or the most recent Black death captured on a cell phone recording, both books show us that we still have many miles to go.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.