One on One: Charles Frazier’s ‘The Trackers’

Published 1:52 pm Thursday, June 6, 2024

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By D.G. Martin

Why hasn’t Charles Frazier written another book just like he did in “Cold Mountain” in which a troubled young person travels from place to place on a mission and finding challenging adventures at every stop?

The answer, of course, is that he has written that book, but you may not have read it. Its title is “The Trackers” and it came out last year. The major character, like Cold Mountain’s Inman, is Val Welch, a struggling painter who takes an assignment to paint a mural in the post office in a small Wyoming town. Val’s work is a part of the Depression era’s Federal Art Project.

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The local sponsor of the project is a rancher, art lover, and aspiring candidate for the U.S. Senate named John Long. Long and his new wife Eve adopt Val, give him a place to stay, and feed him wonderful meals.

In her past life, Eve was an entertainer singing on the radio and in auditoriums and clubs. In the Depression’s toughest times she had gone on the road, stayed in the encampments of the poor and homeless. She survived the experience, but not without scars.

Suddenly, Eve is gone from Long’s comfortable ranch. She has run away and Long was desperate to get her back. But he did not trust the local law enforcers or private security services to keep confidential what they might learn about Eve or about him. So Long persuaded Val to search for Eve.

Val began his “Inman-like” travels to try to find Eve and a painting by Renoir that Eve has stolen from Long, her art-loving husband.

Following a tip and armed with a stack of money bills from Long, Val headed to Seattle via Salt Lake City, Idaho and Oregon. In Seattle’s Depression-era slum or Hooverville, Val got another tip. Eve, the tipster said, may have been married to a man named Jake Orson.

Orson’s parents lived in Florida swamp lands. Their son Jake had a close relationship with Eve, maybe even married to her, but nothing was for certain. Jake’s mother told Val, “I want that shiny little bitch out of my life and out of Jake’s life. I don’t want him getting in trouble over her. She’s the kind that could tear you down to the ground and walk away humming a happy tune, no looking back.”

Jake, it turns out, is unstable and greedy. When he found out about Eve’s “new husband” he wanted a piece of the action.

Meanwhile, Val has found Eve singing in a San Francisco nightclub.

“Eve wore a black cocktail dress and held a cigarette like a stage prop, part of the show. Sometimes she paused and watched the smoke curl up into the light. She sang the song almost like a lullaby, slow enough so that she could smoke with little interruption and so quiet I could hear the calluses of the bass player’s fingers scrubbing the windings of the fat strings. She looked tired and beautiful. I’d never heard her sing, much less perform, but this sleepy late-night gig bore no resemblance to the rollicking shows she’d described from her cowboy band days.”

Val does not tell Long and what happens between Eve and Val will make for your good reading.

Eve says, “We could keep going. The road never ends.”

But Val disagrees, “When people come all the way across the continent and see the Pacific, they usually know for sure the road has ended, maybe in a way they hadn’t planned on, but that particular dream or fantasy of running away forever from your problems is done.”

Hopefully, Charles Frazier’s lovely and provocative writing will continue to entertain and provoke for many more years.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.