The Frontier is a central concept in the American experience. While the most progress was usually made in the crowded cities of the East, the new American spirit, psychology, and perspective were born in the Frontier. Few can tell you much about Robert Fulton or Commodore Vanderbilt, but almost everyone can say something accurate about Davy Crockett.
In recent years, it has become popular to take the exalted view of the Frontier and to turn it into post-Modern ordinariness. Some do that with humor. Others do it by patching together wildly improbable events. I applaud those efforts because they bring balance back into something that has become too much of a myth.
Thirteen Moons is another shift in perspective, but one that's a shift aimed at creating a more normal view of the Frontier . . . one that escaped all but a few who actually lived in the Frontier. It's a perspective that views the Native American experience with the same validity and sympathy as the Frontiersmen's experiences. I found that refreshing.
So what's the story? Will Cooper, an orphan, is sold off as a bound apprentice to a trader and is to serve as the head of a trading post at the edge of the then-independent Cherokee Nation. Cooper's contacts are daily with the Native Americans and very rarely with those who resupply him. Not surprisingly, he grows up with a combined perspective that appreciates what "civilization" brings but honors and is uplifted by the real support he receives from Bear, the chief who adopts him into the tribe.
Cooper honors that relationship, even after the tide turns and the American government evicts the Cherokees. What's the plan? Cooper buys up enough of the unwanted high-altitude land to allow Bear's people to have a home without being moved further West.
But in some ways it's a lonely vigil because Cooper loses the love of his life.
As you read the story, you'll find it jumbled and stilted in places. That's not because Charles Frazier couldn't have told a smoother story, but because Mr. Frazier wanted you to know more about the history of those times than you probably know now. He wants you to know that some Native Americans were plantation owners and slave holders. He also wants you to know that the government didn't play fair with the Native Americans. Further, he wants you to see the senselessness of the sentiment against Native Americans. He also wants you to feel the intensity and challenge of trying to walk in both worlds . . . it cannot quite be done without selling your soul every so often.
If you are willing to be challenged into thinking what you would have done as Will Cooper, you'll adore the book. If you find yourself wanting more to be entertained, you won't like it as much. It'll seem like an average book to you.
The only serious flaw I saw was that the stories of Featherstone and Claire receive more attention than was necessary to accomplish the book's apparent purpose. As such, they distract and slow down what could have been a more compact, intense, and challenging book.
But if you are open to seeing the Frontier in a new way, you should read this book. It'll expand your horizons.