'Cold Mountain' selected for 2016 One Book, One Philadelphia

ColdMountain
Author Charles Frazier, of “Cold Mountain,” says the One Book selection plus the debut of the Jennifer Higdon opera based on the book “will be wonderful.”

The 2016 selection for One Book, One Philadelphia is the 1997 Civil War novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

The Free Library of Philadelphia and the mayor's office were scheduled to announce the selection Thursday morning in an event that will kick off the program's four-month reading period, during which about 800 copies of the book will circulate throughout each of the library's 61 branches.

Cold Mountain was chosen for its Civil War theme, and also to coincide with the debut of a new opera by local composer Jennifer Higdon, based on the book.

The One Book selection committee designated two other books to be read in conjunction with Cold Mountain. One is Solomon Northup's harrowing 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave, which inspired the 2013 Academy Award-winning film by director Steve McQueen. The other is The Civil War, by Geoffrey Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, companion book to the award-winning PBS documentary series.

"We wanted to make sure that we recognize the depth and breadth of all that was happening during that period of time and the Civil War," said Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library. "There's a conversation you can have about how life was in the South postwar, but . . . you cannot talk about the Civil War unless you talk about slavery. And that was part of the conversation we wanted to make sure we were not ignoring."

Now in its 14th year, the One Book program aims to bring together local readers around a single book. It also aims to increase civic engagement and promote literacy and libraries. From Feb. 2 to March 30, more than 100 events inspired by the featured books will include art installations, films, performances, and discussion groups. Public and private schools in the area also participate.

One Book will provide about 3,500 books at no cost to more than 100 schools, adult literacy centers, community service providers, and other civic organizations. All books chosen will also be available via hard copy, e-reader, or by download.

"I refer to it as Philly's favorite tradition," One Book chair Marie Field said. "I cannot think of another program that inspires so many people, touches lives so profoundly, and brings diverse people together in countless ways . . . to talk about things that matter."

The middle-grade book for 2016 is Sounder by William H. Armstrong, and the children's book is Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.

Cold Mountain, which won the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction and was adapted for a 2003 film featuring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, tells the epic story of W.P. Inman, a Southern ex-Confederate soldier who, like Ulysses, abandons his unit and journeys home through the Appalachians to return to the woman he loves.

The program takes off just days before Higdon's opera, Cold Mountain, her first, will be debuted by Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music. Thursday's event will include performances by Opera Philadelphia baritone Jarrett Ott and pianist Grant Loehnig, who will perform selections from the opera.

"It's very exciting for me," Frazier said by phone from his home in North Carolina. "The book was published almost 20 years ago, and these characters that I worked on still have a life in the world. To combine that with the opera at the same time will be wonderful."

Reardon called the timing of the program and the opera "amazing."

"It builds on literacy on multiple levels," Reardon said. "To have a city dedicated to lifelong learning, this is a really nice path to getting there."

This is the first year that two adult books were chosen to accompany the main selection. Reardon said that while Cold Mountain and 12 Years a Slave provided a personal approach to the period, The Civil War will allow readers to grasp the complete historical context of the narratives.

Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, will represent the mayor's office during Thursday's ceremony.

"What direction America was going to take in that important period has deep resonance in our current political dialogue," DiBerardinis said. "We're looking at a question of war and peace, we're looking at keeping your community and family together, looking at the question of slavery and oppression, and these questions are still present in our lives today."

Frazier, who grew up in western North Carolina, spent at least six years researching the Civil War and the culture of the Southern Appalachians. His ancestors, primarily his great-great-uncle, a Confederate deserter also named Inman, were major sources of inspiration.

While the stories woven in Cold Mountain are set against the backdrop of the Civil War, the book itself stresses the character's own struggles. Frazier focuses on the personal, incidental violence so often implicitly associated with major wars and historical events.

"I think in writing the book, I knew very early on that it was about leaving the war and not the war itself," Frazier said. "I'm interested in the damage, the balance between hope and despair, and how they come out of this war rather than how this war is fought."

Frazier took a road trip to Philadelphia in the 1990s to visit the home and gardens of William Bartram, a naturalist writer who influenced the book and Inman's character because of what Frazier called his "legacy of peace and knowledge of the natural world."

Higdon, who has lived in Philadelphia for 29 years, grew up in Seymour, Tenn., a few hours from Cold Mountain. Because she was new to opera, Higdon said, she wanted to "start with something familiar."

"Every note that was written was influenced by the book," Higdon said. "I grew very fond of the characters. I felt like they were singing to me. They were telling me what their music needed to be."

csasko@philly.com