Maybe this is the name this month wants to be called: Climbing Cold Mountain.
"So what are your requirements, then?" I asked Young yesterday. We'd both been reading and were now at the kitchen table eating afternoon toast.
"Adventure. There has to be a battle. Though a battle can ruin it if it's done bad. And beautiful places that you would want to go into. What do you like?" because he's now that age where conversation is reciprocal, and thus delightful.
"I like stories that have travelling by foot or some other slow and real way of going. And danger. But I don't like battles. I usually skip them, or skim them anyway."
"You do? But they're really interesting. How can you know what's happening?"
"I skim for bits of conversation, where people are talking? I don't like gore and descriptions that go on and on of people's innards. I want to know the feelings."
"Yeah. Though also I think revenge always makes a good story."
"Really?" I ask.
"Well, not vengeance, but like bringing something back that enemies destroyed."
"I guess I can see that. Like avenging dishonor and restoring what's right?"
"Yeah. And majestic characters who can really do the hard thing to do," says my son.
"Except I don't like them to be braggy."
"Me neither," he agrees.
I say, "And I like there to be spots of coziness, on the brink of disaster. And beautiful places like you said. Things worth seeing. Also I notice I really like it when they talk about gardens and they know the names of plants and it's not just "big tree" or "weeds" or "a perfect red rose." Like they've really seen things and not just watched a lot of movies."
Young nods, eats his raisin bread, toasted, with lots of butter. Drinks some milk. But his eyes stay on me, full of thought.
"Maps, I like," I say.
"Yeah, they're usually a good sign."
"I think most books I like have a map. Or they're set in London or some other clearly known place."
"Except sometimes in some books it feels like some people just throw maps in. Like it's a trend. It has to be a real map, even if it's imaginary," he points out.
"I agree. The place has to matter and where things are in relation to each other has to be felt in the writing."
And I realize later, it's not just our shared favorites: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Dancing Bear, that have maps and journeys, but so many of the works that feel like ancestors when I find them. Books that appear not as made things, fortuitous, but as inevitable, undeniable and somehow holy like ancestors are -- that share these same qualities.
Take Cold Mountain. What is it makes Cold Mountain so stinking good? I asked myself. I asked the Great Google. He answered, I answered myself. We both pretty much agree.
Restrained, musical rhythm of the writing voice, classic story-arc of the returning warrior, the future agrarian egalitarian dream dressed up as a plausible past (and therefore a plausible future), the true love and true loss that means a new generation can be born, the sense of place, the trueness of the two characters, redemption, tragedy, doggedness. This sense of inevitable, undeniable truth to everything that happens. And enough believable awfulness to let the goodness feel earned and willed and chosen and some kind of wonderful blessed luck. The way it does in real life.
But how do you do it? I've read Thirteen Moons, Frazier's second book. It has many of the same ingredients, but never takes flight.
But Cold Mountain does.
What is the way to Cold Mountain?
Cold Mountain: there's no through trail.