‘Cold Mountain’ selected for One Book, One Philadelphia

 Siobhan Reardon is President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Siobhan Reardon is President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The bestselling book set during the Civil War, “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, is the selection for the Free Library’s city-wide reading program, One Book, One Philadelphia.

Beginning next February, the book and its themes will be the basis of a variety of events, workshops, lectures, and programs. A schedule of events with partner organizations is forthcoming.

“Cold Mountain” is about a Confederate soldier who deserted the Southern army during the Civil War, and tries to return home to the Appalachian Mountains. Frazier says he did not base the book on events of the Civil War, but in part on the life of his great-great uncle, who also deserted the Southern army after being shot twice.

“That was the core of it. There were really only about five things you can know for certain about his life. Most of it is made up,” said Frazier. “I did lots of research about how people lived then on small farms in Southern Appalachians: the texture of life, the process of farming and food preservation.”

The novel, Frazier’s first, was a runaway bestseller, a National Book Award winner, and the basis of a major motion picture starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, directed by Anthony Minghella. Supporting actress Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for her role as Ruby.

The book has also been transformed into an opera composed by Philadelphia-based Pulitzer-prize winner Jennifer Higdon. It was co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Santa Fe Opera.

The opera’s East Coast premiere will be in February, in Philadelphia. It was one of the reasons the Free Library chose this book. The timing is perfect.

“People come to learning differently,” said Free Library director and president Siobahn Reardon. “When you think about the different ways this story gets told, and you can analyze it differently — it’s really about getting at the different types of learning styles.”

The OBOP selection is chosen by a panel considering the book’s literary quality, its readability (it must be written at a 10th grade level), themes that can be mined for discussion, and local ties. In addition to the opera, the story prominently features the book “Bartram’s Travels,” by William Bartram. In pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia, Bartram was the New World’s pre-eminent botanist.

The Free Library selected additional books to compliment the themes in “Cold Mountain,” including “Twelve Years a Slave,” the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, also an Oscar-winning movie.

Reardon says “Twelve Years” offers a counterpoint to the Confederate perspective in “Cold Mountain.”

“With Civil War as the backdrop, there were complex characters in the South trying to get through this war, versus the reasons we were in that war in the first place, which is what ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ presents,” she said.

Since the publication of “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier has written two more novels, “Thirteen Moons” (2007) and “Nightwoods” (2011), each revolving around Appalachian life. Neither has achieved the popularity of “Cold Mountain.”

“After the success of ‘Cold Mountain,’ the hardest thing was putting that out of my mind and getting back to work,” said Frazier. “None of that has any place in sitting down at the desk, every afternoon, and making up characters and places and situations.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.