Depression-era trek fuels Charles Frazier’s latest saga

‘The Trackers’ continues ‘Cold Mountain’ author’s love affair with journeys.
Charles Frazier is the author of "The Trackers."
Courtesy of Ecco

Credit: Ecco

Credit: Ecco

Charles Frazier is the author of "The Trackers." Courtesy of Ecco

Contrary to the breathless reports that greeted its publication, “Cold Mountain” was not Charles Frazier’s first book.

That would be “Adventuring in the Andes,” a high-altitude hiking guide for the Sierra Club, which also features his photography. “The Himalayans were already taken,” he deadpans. “It was in the early ‘80s, so before cellphones and GPS.”

He encountered breathtaking scenery and “kids with machine guns” — a combination of natural beauty and human treachery that has animated so much of his work.

“Charles spent two harrowing summers in South America traveling for that book,” says his wife and editorial aide-de-camp Katherine Frazier. “It’s been fun in signing lines over the years when self-described ‘Frazier completists’ have a copy for him to sign.”

Journeys figure prominently in Frazier’s fictional worlds. The more arduous, the bigger the payoff, as they offer a structure for revelation, transformation and maybe, with luck, redemption. So he tends to run his characters ragged.

In his latest novel, “The Trackers” (Ecco, $30) narrator Valentine Welch ends up crisscrossing the country, from the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco to the swamps of Florida. It is Frazier’s first novel not set exclusively in the American South.

“It definitely is a picaresque or at least has elements of that, of significant characters going on a journey, or a series of journeys,” he says.

Billed as part western and part noir, “The Trackers” is set during the Depression, but it is a novel about that grinding, desperate era in the way that “Cold Mountain” is a Civil War chronicle or “Thirteen Moons” evokes the Trail of Tears — a sweeping, epic story shown through the lens of individual struggles.

Welch is an artist benefiting from the New Deal. He is in Dawes, Wyoming, to paint a mural in a post office when he gets mixed up with wealthy John Long, who had been a WWI sniper, and his restless wife, Eve, who seems both traumatized and empowered by her itinerant life riding the rails and singing with a Western swing band.

Early on, it is clear that this couple’s secrets spell trouble. (Note Welch’s reading material: “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”) When Eve mysteriously bolts and takes a beloved Renoir painting with her, Long pays Welch to scour the Hoovervilles and bring her back. He naturally finds plenty of gritty trouble along the way, primarily from a literary precursor to Florida Man. (Frazier used to have a home in the Sunshine State, and he evokes its reputation for craziness in the American outback with particular relish; Val Welch barely avoids getting thrown to the alligators.) Add to this volatile mix a flinty cowboy, symbolic of the Old — and Wild — West, and you get a plot steeped in Americana with unpredictable twists.

“What I especially love about “The Trackers” is that it showcases a much wider range of experiences than we often see in portrayals of the Great Depression,” says Sara Birmingham, Frazier’s editor at Ecco. “Every one of Charles’ characters is so complex and memorable, and their journeys cohere into a fascinating portrait of an era that in many ways mirrors our own.”

Like his protagonists, Frazier experiences a certain itchy-foot restlessness, as novelist Charles McNair discovered during a visit. “I learned that every day Chuck took a mountain bike up on the hills around Asheville, banging along on muscular trails, working out, keeping himself in good physical shape. Who knew? My notion of Chuck as a desk-bound writer dissolved into a fuller portrait of a robust outdoorsman who loved to constantly test himself in the natural world.”

Nevertheless, in person Frazier is modest, reserved and dazzlingly polite — a Highlander gentleman from a bygone, more courteous time. Now 73, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina, a mile from where he was born, with his wife. They have one daughter. The firstborn in a family of five, Frazier grew up in Franklin and Andrews. His father was a school superintendent, and his mother was a librarian. “There were a lot of teachers in my family,” he says.

One day in eighth grade, a football player casually changed his life.

“He was older than I was,” Frazier recalls. “He told me I needed to read better books. At the time, I thought they were all just books, lumped together. I think two of the authors he mentioned were Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway. So, with “Ethan Frome,” I started reading.”

And he never stopped. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and then got his master’s from Appalachian State University and his Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina. Degrees in hand, he went into the family business and taught English first at the University of Colorado Boulder and then at North Carolina State University.

“I enjoyed teaching literature more than I enjoyed teaching writing,” he says.

His wife convinced him to quit his job to work full time on his first novel. It was based on family lore, and it, too, traced a transfiguring journey. He based “Inman” on his great-great-uncle William Pinkney “Pink” Inman, who was from Haywood County, the area around Cold Mountain. The real Inman deserted the Confederate Army after being wounded twice. His fictional counterpart haltingly makes his way back to Ada, the woman he loves, who has been contending with wartime privations and a brutal Home Guard.

It is a dense, old-fashioned novel, a love story, that balances lavish lyricism with granular historical detail. Readers collectively swooned, and Frazier won the 1997 National Book Award. “Cold Mountain” was adapted for the cinema in 2003 and received seven Oscar nominations, winning in the best supporting actress category for Renee Zellweger’s performance.

“After 25 years, the best Southern novels are still held up to the standard that Charles set with ‘Cold Mountain,’” says Atlanta author Daren Wang.

The publishing industry, too, got the vapors. Frazier received an $8 million advance for his follow-up, “Thirteen Moons,” inspired by a story he heard about an elderly man in a psychiatric hospital who spoke the Cherokee language.

Set in the 19th century, the novel is loosely based on the life of William Holland Thomas, another Confederate and chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — the only white man ever to hold that position — and it depicts western North Carolina during the Cherokee Removal. Here again: another love story, another life-changing trek.

With it came a new family of sorts for the Fraziers. “Thirteen Moons” became the first English-language novel translated into a Native language. It is now a teaching tool at the Kituah Academy in Cherokee, North Carolina, which is working to preserve the language.

“He got that book right,” says Myrtle Driver Johnson, a tribal elder, educator and translator, noting that Frazier is “shy until he gets to know you, then he’ll crack a joke.” In fact, what he got right was a feature not normally associated with the Trail of Tears: laughter. “Cutting up and laughing at each other — that’s how we show affection. Humor popped up at just the right moments in that book,” she says.

Soon enough, Katherine Frazier was adopted into the Deer Clan, and her husband took under his wing Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, whose 2020 debut “Even As We Breathe” is the first novel published in English by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian.

“Through his work and advocacy for writers such as myself, he has very loudly proclaimed that western North Carolina is a region of important voices, ideas and histories that should be considered on equal footing with those from the country’s more traditional cultural epicenters,” says Clapsaddle. “He has helped all of us shed the cliches and stereotypes cast upon (and admittedly sometimes by) us so that we may simply share the stories of our home. I am not alone in saying that without Charles Frazier as a trailblazer, advocate and mentor, I would not have the opportunities as a writer that I have today.”

“Thirteen Moons” was followed by the best-sellers “Nightwoods” and “Varina.”

“The Trackers” has been 10 years in the making. It was inspired by a photograph from a book on the Works Progress Administration.

“There was a guy — obviously an artist — on the scaffolding with a mural in progress,” he says. “There was an older man and a younger woman who were dressed nice with him. For years, I thought: ‘Who could these people be?’ So I started writing from there, going by memory. Years later, I found the picture again and realized I had misremembered some details.”

Too late. The painter was already off and running, on a round-about journey to get the girl.


Charles Frazier. In conversation with Daren Wang. Presented by A Cappella Books. Free, but registration required. 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 25. Georgia Center for the Book, Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur.