Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving: A Cynic's View

Several years ago, I was reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier and came across an interesting passage that I always think about at this time of year. I'm not a religious person and Thanksgiving has always struck me as a little odd. Like Memorial Day, which is supposed to be about somberly remembering the soldiers who fought and died for our freedoms, but is in reality a day of bar-be-queing and frivolity, Thanksgiving seems to me to be all about the food and football and only a little about the actual giving of thanks.

You might have seen the 2003 movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger, but Cold Mountain is about a soldier in the Civil War, Inman, who has finally had enough of war and deserts to return to his home at Cold Mountain and to Ada, a girl he barely knows but deeply loves. Ada moved from Charleston to Cold Mountain with her father just before the war. Her father dies. Ada is book-smart but knows nothing about running a farm. The place goes to seed, falling down around her. Enter Ruby. Ruby has no formal education but knows everything there is to know about farming. They enter into a partnership. Ruby will teach Ada, they will work the farm together as equals, and the farm will be as much Ruby's as it is Ada's.

In the following scene (not in the movie), Ada and Ruby are visited by Mrs. McKennet, an old family acquaintance of Ada's from Charleston. Mrs. McKennet is relating a "maudlin" story she has read about a recent battle, "its obvious fictitiousness apparently lost on her."

It was fought - as they all were lately - against dreadful odds. As the battle neared its inevitable conclusion, a dashing young officer was grieviously wounded to the chest. He fell back bleeding great gouts of heartblood. A companion stooped and cradled his head to soothe his dying. But as the battle raged around them, the young officer, in the very act of expiring, rose and drew his pistol and added his contribution to the general gunfire. He died erect, with the hammer snapping on empty loads. And there were additional details of somber irony. Found on his person was a letter to his sweetheart, the wording of which foretokened exactly the manner of his death. And further, when the letter was taken by courier to the girl's home, it was discovered that she had died of a strange chest seizure on precisely the day and hour her beloved had passed. During the latter stages of the tale, Ada developed an itch just to either side of her nose. She touched the places discreetly with her fingertips, but then she found that the corners of her mouth would stay down only with great trembling effort.

When Mrs. McKennet finished, Ada looked around at the furniture and carpet and lamps, at a household running effortlessly, at Mrs. McKennet, satisfied and plump in her velvet chair, her hair in tight rolls dangling from the sides of her head. Ada might as well have been in Charleston. And she felt called upon to take up some of her old Charleston demeanor. She said, That is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard. She went further, adding that, contrary to the general view, she found the war to exhibit anything but the fine characteristics of tragedy and nobility. She found it, even at a great distance, brutal and benighted on both sides about equally. Degrading to all.

Her aim was to shock or outrage, but Mrs. McKennet rather seemed amused. She fixed Ada with a half smile and said, You know I have a great affection for you, but you are nevertheless the most naive girl I have yet had the pleasure to encounter.

Ada then fell silent and there was an awkward void that Ruby presently filled by cataloguing the birds she had spied that morning and commenting on the progress of late crops and reporting the amazing fact that Esco Swanger's turnips had grown so big from his black dirt that he could fit but six in a peck basket. But in a minute Mrs. McKennet interrupted her and said, Perhaps you will share your views on the war with us.

Ruby hesitated only a second and then said the war held little interest for her. She had heard stories of the northern country and had come to understand that it was a godless land, or rather a land of only one god, and that was money. The report was that under the rule of such a grabby creed people grew mean and bitter and deranged until, for lack of higher forms of spirit comfort, entire families became morphine-crazed. They had, as well, invented a holiday called Thanksgiving, which Ruby had only recently got news of, but from what she gathered its features to be, she found it to contain the mark of a tainted culture. To be thankful on just the one day.

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