Friday, February 20, 2015

Techniques in Appalachian Fiction: Dialect in Cold Mountain

In this little series, which you can read beginning to end if you so desire by clicking this link: Techniques in Appalachian Fiction, I am taking a look at the openings of seven novels in the genre of Appalachian Fiction to see how other authors have handled the sticky issue of rendering dialect.

Today, I'm reading the opening chapter of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, published in 1997. 

I've seen the movie and thought I knew how Charles Frazier would open the novel and present the characters, but I was completely wrong.

The novel opens from the point of view of Inman as he looks out a window from his hospital bed during the Civil War. I will give away no more plot than that because this post isn't about plot at all. The opening chapter is narrated in what I believe is 3rd person limited (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). The narrator gets inside Inman's head but doesn't use Inman's vernacular exactly - by this I mean we don't hear Inman's voice in the narration and there's little to no use of dialect. If we were given Inman's voice, the novel would be entirely different - I think the narration would be chopped and brief and not at all lyrical. It would be more similar to the way Inman's speech is depicted.

When Inman speaks in this chapter in dialogue (which happens rarely), the dialogue is presented not in quotations but rather after an em-dash (which is very curious to me). Inman's words are always brief and to the point:
  • "--Why did you never have any? Inman said," (9) referring to the other man's missing eyes.
  • "--I'd not differ with you there, Inman said," (14) responding to the blind man telling Inman he needed to set aside a troubling memory.
We quickly learn that Inman walked out of school without ever returning, but he reads daily (and must read daily as if it's tied to his survival on some level). His readings of landscapes capture his imagination and connect him to memories of places that are important to him. Although he isn't educated traditionally, he is an intellectual. This allows Frazier to get away with using beautiful, fluid, even poetic descriptions in the narration as well as words that wouldn't typically be in the vocabulary of a Civil War-era Appalachian man with little education. Words like "divination" and "bulbuous" don't seem to me to be out of place in the narration.

Other soldiers call out phrases that clearly reflect a lack of education but also a lack of thoughtfulness: "Come on closer, I want them boots" (10).

A few times, a little bit of country-talk comes into the narration, like in the line, "His spirit, it seemed, had been about burned out of him" (22).

For me, Inman's character and personality comes through the use of simile in the narration. The similes are all things that Inman could have seen with his own eyes, usually simple things he would have naturally thought would be a good comparison. Some examples:
  • "Periodically they were driven from behind the houses by their own cavalry, who beat them with the flats of their sabers like schoolteachers paddling truants" (11). Earlier in the piece, it was revealed that Inman had a teacher with a paddle and Inman was a truant. The voice of narration isn't Inman's, but this simile creates a tight connection between the narrator and Inman.
  • "His neck hurt as if a red cord running from it to the balls of his feet were yanked quivering tight at each step" (16). I have a feeling a specifically red cord will enter into the story soon enough.
There's discussion in the narration of two generals, Lee and Longstreet, spending their time "coining fine phrases" (12) during a battle where many men lost their lives. It seems to me the coining of phrases in this opening was done with great care, and the narration lays these phrases on top of an equally tragic story.

Inman, as his name implies, is thoughtful but uses few words when speaking to others. In one scene, he "sat brooding and pining for his lost self" (23). For me, this line alone justifies the lengthy ponderings of the narrator, the almost complete lack of dialect, and the lyrical quality of the narration.

If you haven't read this novel yet, do it! It's fabulous starting with page one.

Because I'm doing this little series for college credit, I must not forget the bibliography. Note the title of the opening chapter, which is in all lower case in the book.

Frazier, Charles. "the shadow of a crow." Cold Mountain. New York: Grove Press, 1997.


  1. That's difficult to pull off with so little dialogue. Probably a good thing the man's dialect doesn't come through very strong.

  2. Dialect can be tricky.
    In the absence of dialogue, I think that describing speech patterns in prose is a good way to reflect dialect.

    1. I agree with that. I actually hate reading dialect - like Huckleberry Finn style.

  3. I do love me some lyrical writing. It's what drew me in to the novel. His use of imagery is so beautiful, too, which is especially poignant when he touches on such ugly topics as war and desertion.

    1. I love lyrical writing too. I absolutely agree with you. I love the description of the suit he bought before he deserts.

  4. In the opening chapter of my latest MS the setting is early colonial America and I had to do research as to how they talked. I put in a few phrases and words unique to the time, but not so much that the reader won't wonder what the heck they're talking about.

    1. I think that's a good idea. One of my professors recommended a small sprinkling of it.

  5. Sorry. I didn't get email notification of comments. Not sure what is up with that.