A Review of the Historical Accuracy of
By Donald K. Burleson
When I first got “Cold Mountain” I became
immediately suspicious after reading the glowing reviews on the
dust jacket. In lionizing puffery that would embarrass
Shakespeare himself, Cold Mountain was noted as possibly one of
the best books ever written.
However, despite the hyperbole, Cold
Mountain is no less a masterpiece of literature, worthy of its’
national book award, and Thirteen Moons is even better,
elevating Frazier into the rarified ranks as one of the 21st
centuries greatest authors.
To be fair, I’m prejudiced because Thirteen
Moons hits many of my hot buttons. It’s got amazing scenic
descriptions reminiscent of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple
Sage”, the celebrity encounters of “Forrest Gump”, the
sympathetic flaws of Gus from “Lonesome Dove”, and a too-eerie
similarity with the first part of “Dancing with Wolves”.
Nonetheless, Thirteen Moons is a fine read
for the worthy scholar.
But most fun part of Thirteen Moons is the
conflict between noble and wise Cherokee against the ignorant
and corrupt Yankees. It’s also amazing to me because of
Frazier’s super-accurate descriptions of 19th century
life, replete with dozens of eye-opening details of a long
forgotten way of life:
Maroon is the last color of mourning
for a proper Victorian Woman.
Authentic and detailed recipes for
everything from grilled squirrel to bear roasts.
Getting “lot of bucks” is a term that’s
been used for over 200 years.
Also, I loved the periodic quotes,
especially one of my favorites by my long-dead relative Robert
“O wad some Power the
giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”
A Historical Evaluation of Thirteen Moons
I have no doubt that Thirteen moons will
become a major motion picture, but let’s get right to the
strengths and weaknesses of Thirteen Moons. Thirteen Moons is
not a book to be tossed aside lightly, and I found myself taking
over 14 hours to read it, often re-reading paragraphs where
Frazier’s word-smithing which is most poetic:
On Yankees: “They’re bred to do it and
don’t know any better. I wouldn’t walk across the street to
piss such a man if he were lit on fire”.
“We all reach a point where we would
like to draw a line across time and declare everything on
the far side null. Shed our past life like a pair of muddy
“It was nothing more than paper . . .
handshakes and promised, moon beams and horse shit, trust
and risk, all layered one atop the other in thin strata like
cards in a deck”.
So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and
declare Thirteen Moons to be one of the best novels thus far in
the 21st century.
makes the best book of the century?
As an amateur genealogist and scholar of 19th
century grammar, I squealed out loud at reading long-lost
phrases such as “scarce and dear”, which I know to be authentic,
but there are still outstanding questions regarding the
historical accuracy of Thirteen Moons.
The Golden Delicious Fiasco
Fans of Charles Frazier know all about the
Golden Delicious Apples mistake (Golden Delicious apples did not
exist in the Civil War). When I hit the Golden Delicious part
of Cold Mountain, I set it aside in disgust for almost a week.
The problem is that you get so sucked-in to the reality of 19th
century life that hitting a mistake like that is a turd in the
Thirteen Moons and Golden Delicious Apples
Before you claim that Frazier did it
deliberately, please note that NEWSWEEK published that Frazer
was mortified about the error.
In Thirteen Moons, Frazier mention bear
grease numerous time, yet I was disappointed that he never once
mentions the most common uses for Bear Grease, namely using
bear grease as a hair pomade and as a tool to forecast the
Here are my notes on the
virtues of Bear Grease
Thirteen Moons and Poontang
Throughout Thirteen Moons, Frazier takes-on
the incredible challenge of describing the diction of the common
spoken English of the early frontiersman, an almost impossible
task given that real-world cursing was never recorded on paper.
We know that Stephen Crane heard the cussing from the veterans
of Petersburg, for in his classic “The Red Badge of Courage”,
Crane refers to cussing euphemistically, as “swearing a cross
“He never drunk a drop of licker
in his life, and seldom swore a cross oath”.
When Frazier interjects the word “Poontang”
into the text, I was immediately suspicious. I first heard
about Poontang from Vietnam Vets, and I assumed it to be a
reference to the friendly gals of Saigon. A review of the
Etymology of Poontang reveals
that it’s possible that Will may have know the word, but
this page says that Poontang was first used in-writing in
“Several sources claim that it first
appeared somewhere in the 1910s or 1920s (Chapman, 1995;
Ayto and Simpson, 1992).”
I was also taken-aback with Frazier’s use
of the F work (Claire: ”I didn’t f**k him”), and because Frazier
is known for his accuracy, curiosity compelled me to investigate
Thirteen Moons and the “F” word:
Professor Steven Cerutti’s master work “The
Words of the Day” notes the following on the
origins and usage of the “F” word, making it likely that the
words was know in the 1820’s, but not used in polite
conversation, and almost not is the may ways that we hear it
“The Dictionary of American Slang
(1960) gives as the primary meaning of the word: “[taboo] To
Cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone
unfairly.” It goes on to offer this as an explanation of the
relationships between fraud and sex: “All slang meanings of
‘f**k’ and all ‘f**k’ expressions, of course, derive
consciously or unconsciously from the old and standard but
taboo ‘f**k’ = sexual intercourse.
From the New Oxford American
Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005) we learn that “f**k” came
into the English language by slipping through the
Indo-European back door and surfacing as the Germanic word
The simple truth is that “f**k”—obviously
one of the oldest words in the language—if not the
world—dates back to nearly the birth of writing, back when
our ancestors were barely up on their feet, still hunting
Thirteen Moons – The Movie
By definition, this amazing book will not
make a worthy movie, it’s impossible. There are no clear-cut
villains (Featherstone) and the subtleties that make this book
great will never translate well into film. However, I have no
doubt that “Thirteen Moons” will be a blockbuster movie
nonetheless, for these reasons:
Profound insights – I loved the
section where Will noted that babies (and housecats) would
kill us without a thought if given a chance. Better still,
his descriptions of the old ways and social mores of the 19th
century ring-true with amazing clarity.
A man in another age – The
initial scene of Ancient William, a living relic of the
American frontier, living in the land of telephones and
movies is very compelling. In the movie, they should start
out with Will being paraded-out in a 1910 newsreel talkie,
like they did with Ole Thomas Edison. Will is a living link
to an ancient past, a man who knew Revolutionary War
soldiers. It’s akin to the superb Kubrick masterpiece AI,
where Stanly Kubrick interjects a sense of awe when the
child robot is revived after thousands of years “here is a
robot that actually knew living human beings”.
The smart triumph over the stupid
- The conflict between the wise outnumbered Indians and
their dumbass Yankee masters, makes for a great story.
Humor - “As a further sign of
the contempt the local animal world held for me . . . a
raccoon chose the second step to the porch as his nighttime
place to take a big black oily shit, punctuated with various
seeds and berries.” Also, the last page of Thirteen Moons
will translate into an impressive movie scene, an
unforgettable and heartwarming image that summarized the
whole boo in one masterful stroke of Frazier’s pen.
Racism – Thirteen Moons delves
into great details on the laws of races, and I was surprised
to discover, that, had I been born 150 years earlier, I
would be legally prohibited from marrying a white woman (and
I’m only a small-part Cherokee). People with Cherokee blood
tend to have dense mops of hair (almost a “coat”, really),
as noted in this video commercial for
Cherokee Hair Tampons, endorsed by Cheech and Chong.
Indian Racism in the 21st Century
Thirteen Moons delves into great details on
the laws of races, and I was surprised to discover, that, had I
been born 150 years earlier, I would be legally prohibited from
marrying any white woman (and I’m only a small-part Cherokee).
People with Cherokee blood tend to have
dense mops of thick hair (almost a “coat”, really), as that’s
not lost on the bigots, as noted in this offensive South Park
racist video for
Cherokee Hair Tampons, personally endorsed by Cheech and
Thirteen Moons reminded me of my family’s
personal brushes with institutional racism and our efforts to
“hide” both our religion and diverse bloodlines. Frazier notes
in “Thirteen Moons” that North Carolina State law forbade anyone
with even the tiniest drop of Indian blood from marrying a white
Miscegenation laws were in-force in my own father’s
lifetime, strict laws which spelled out stiff prison terms, and
were Indian-specific. To further offense, this NC statute
suggests that Indians were held in such low esteem as to be
considered inferior to Blacks:
“A later statute, mentioned in this
article (see Note 78, page 446), provides that intermarriage
between a Cherokee Indian of Robeson County and a Negro or
person of Negro descent to the third generation is
prohibited (North Carolina General Statutes section 51-3
Unfortunately, institutional racism is
almost impossible to prove, and I’ve learned that even in the
alleged age of racial enlightenment, exposing my Indian heritage
was not a good idea.