A new column from Wiley Cash

Editor’s Note: This weekend we’re releasing the latest Assembly project, a monthly literary newsletter on all things book-related in the Old North State.

Acclaimed author Wiley Cash will lead a monthly dive into the best of North Carolina as a new book editor. This will include older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Top: Photo of Cash interviewing author Jason Mott at the UNC Asheville Ideas Festival.

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In 1997, Charles Frazier, originally from North Carolina, won the National Book Award for cold mountain. Last year, Jason Mott, a native of North Carolina and longtime resident, won the National Book Award for his novel Hell of a Book.

What do these two novels, both 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 in 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 scene of the first protests at separate food counters in 1960, as well as a deadly attack by the Ku Klux Klan 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 first novel; he has since published three novels. It tells the story of WP Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier who deserts from a hospital near Raleigh. He sets off on foot to return home to the mountains, where he hopes to rekindle a romance with Ada Monroe, a socialite raised in Charleston who makes a living as a farmer. Inman’s journey is filled with near-death experiences, hiding from the traveling bands of Confederate home guards while facing the psychological horrors of the war he seeks to leave behind.

Hell of a book is Mott’s fourth novel. His debut in 2013 Income was an instant New York Times bestseller and became an ABC television series called Resurrection. In it, an anonymous author is also blazing west, though faster than Inman, on tour in support of a bestselling novel, also called Hell of a book. But here’s the thing: the author has no recollection of writing the book. He only has a vague memory of who he is and where he comes from. You even have to tell the author that he is black. To complicate matters further, it is followed by the ghostly appearance of a young black boy known as The Kid, who may or may not have been the victim of police brutality.

In a separate narrative, the reader is introduced to a young black boy nicknamed Soot who lives in Bolton, North Carolina, and slowly comes to terms with how limited life is for boys like him. At the novel’s climax, community leaders ask the author to return home to eastern North Carolina to be a voice of protest after the police kill a young black boy.

Basically, both cold mountain and Hell of a book are love stories. But at the same time 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 each other amid psychological carnage. A novel is about the trauma of surviving a violent war; the other is about the trauma of surviving a violent society.

In either case, the trauma not only affects how these characters see (or don’t see) their past, but also limits the possibilities of their future. At the beginning of Hell of a book, Soot’s father watches as his son grows weary of repeated reporting on the abuse of black children by police and the criminal justice system. But the father knows there is a need to prepare his child and has “the talk” so many black parents have to deliver about how they will be treated differently because of their skin color. The narrator refers to these warnings as “bonsai child”, which means 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 nears his destination in cold mountain, he briefly allows himself to imagine finding Ada, maybe even marrying her and one day holding a grandchild in his lap. But he makes up for it, understanding that “to believe that such an event could actually happen, you needed a deep faith in the right order”. From what he saw of the war and his journey home, that kind of faith is “so rare.” He worries that his soul is ruined, unable to sustain the expectations of happiness which, before the war, seemed to be the natural course of life.

Inman’s fatalistic mindset is the result of the poisons of a war waged to maintain white supremacy and ensure the subjugation of black bodies; his own trauma is the result of the contagious power of racism. Racism has poisoned the landscape and the people who inhabit it – a “repulsive region” where “the forest seemed like 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: the humidity, the pines, the barely veiled racism,” he said as he disembarked. But the author acknowledges that not all markers of racism are thinly veiled here.

In this part of the world, we have it all: fifty-foot Confederate flags planted along the highway, statues erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, plantings where you can take wedding photos like before; we’ve had lynchings, riots, bombings, shrimp and grits, and even muscat grapes.

But the author’s feelings are more complicated and nuanced than Inman’s. As Inman escapes into the western mountains, the author is forced to return to eastern North Carolina to confront his conflicting feelings after fleeing his childhood home. While he calls the South “America’s oldest crime scene”, he also admits that “despite everything I know about it, I’ve always loved the South”.

The further west Inman moves, the clearer the air seems, the more beautiful the long-distance vistas of Blue Ridge, and the more his heart allows him to imagine a hopeful future. When he and Ada are briefly reunited, they hide out in an abandoned Cherokee village during a blizzard, spending a night in each other’s arms and dreaming “of an imaginary marriage, the years passing happy and peaceful”. The irony of enjoying the freedom of those imaginations in a village where an entire civilization has been nearly decimated at the hands of white supremacy is not lost on Frazier, or Ada and Inman for that matter. They understand that “[t]The fears of these people had been fully realized. The whole world had found them, even hidden here, and had fallen upon them with all their 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 toxic system they helped maintain, the Author and Soot cannot. Their only hope of surviving the trauma of racial violence is to either erase their sense of self or succumb to the reality of being pruned like a bonsai tree. Until we are all able to confront these crimes and obtain justice, as the ghostly Kid tells us in the last pages of the book, “I’m not sure we can face this reality.”

Whether it’s the Civil War or the latest black death captured on a cellphone recording, both books show us that we still have a long way to go.

Check out our interviews with Jason Mott and Charles Frazier.

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Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and founder of It works, an online creative community. He was a member of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.

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