A woman named Ada sits on the porch of “the house that was now hers.” She’s writing a letter (to whom we’re not told). In the letter she says, “Despite your long absence … I will never conceal a single thought from you.” After finishing her letter, Ada looks around: she sees a peaceful garden, full of fruits and vegetables.
In the second chapter, we can begin to tell how the novel is structured. Frazier alternates between chapters told from Inman’s perspective and chapters told from Ada’s (Ada is the person to whom Inman writes a letter, and who’s writing her own letter to Inman).
Ada’s father, a preacher named Monroe, died recently. Since that time, she’s been in charge of her father’s farm, but doesn’t do much work on it. Indeed, she’s so reluctant to work her farm that she’s having trouble finding food—for the time being, she eats mostly eggs, milk, and tomatoes. She remembers being a child and playing with her cousin, Lucy.
Although Ada never fights in the Civil War, her situation back at home in some ways parallels Inman’s. She’s pulled away from her friends and family, and forced to survive on her own. Uncertain of her own future, Ada takes refuge in memory: rather than worry about the future, she thinks about her carefree days with Lucy (much as Inman thinks about Swimmer).
We learn a little more about Ada. Ada grew up in Charleston. At Monroe’s insistence, she got an unusually advanced education for a woman. She studied Latin French, and Greek, and learned to paint and play the piano. Now, Ada’s education seems strangely useless—nothing she learned in school is going to help her manage the 300 acres of property that now belong to her. Ada thinks about Monroe’s recent death, and how the farm hands have left as well, either to fight in the war or to desert.
Frazier makes a clear distinction between practical and abstract knowledge. Ada, in part because she’s a woman (but also because she’s wealthy), has been schooled only in abstract knowledge, which doesn’t necessarily serve any purpose when it comes to the practicalities of survival: music, languages, history, etc. Faced with the very real possibility of starving to death on her farm, Ada must accept that her education, while interesting, has left her totally unprepared to survive the Civil War.
Ada is ill-equipped to run a farm. She isn’t even sure why she’s running the farm at all—she has no use for goats or cows. She sees a big rooster walking around the farm, and tries to shoo it away. The rooster attacks her, cutting her wrist with its beak. Ada goes inside to find clean clothing, but finds none. Ada realizes that her “will to do” is almost gone. She spends the next few minutes going through her father’s things.
Ada’s own farm is rejecting her authority, and she’ll need to learn how to control it if she’s going to survive. Afraid of what she’ll have to do to survive, Ada again retreats into her memories—she’s almost given up on living life.
Ada reads books in the late morning—by people like George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. She reads in her study, staring out at the hazy shape of Cold Mountain nearby.
Instead of trying to survive, Ada turns to art and literature for sustenance. It’s interesting that she reads a novel by Eliot, whose famous “two-plot” novels were another important influence on Cold Mountain.
Ada reads a book about “frontier adventure,” which she finds enjoyable but strangely sad. Afterwards, she tries to cook herself some breakfast, but it takes her two hours just to turn on the stove. She eats bread for breakfast and tomatoes for dinner. Then she goes outside to pick flowers.
Ada is essentially a child—she has little to no way of providing for herself. Her helplessness seems closely tied to her gender—women in the 19th century simply aren’t expected to perform manual labor—but also to her class, as Ada has no real knowledge even in the more traditionally “feminine” sphere of cooking.
Ada strolls to the chapel on her property. Monroe is buried outside this chapel, and his grave is so new that there isn’t even grass growing on it. He died in May. He was so old that his complaints of being tired and sore didn’t concern Ada much, since they were nothing new. When Ada discovered his dead body, she thought he was just sleeping. She watched him being buried two days later. As she watched, she noticed his pale, flabby skin and blank eyes.
We begin to see why Ada is so hopeless. She’s depended on her father for her entire life, and now he’s dead. This suggests that Ada has a lot in common with Inman—just as Inman is afraid to face the future alone, and continues to fixate on his traumatic past, Ada is afraid to go on living without the companionship of her father, and fixates on the gruesome images of his dead body.
Ada remembers her father’s funeral. The preacher talked about Monroe’s kindness and wisdom. Afterwards, men buried him in the ground. Sally Swanger, a friend of Ada, offered to take care of her until Ada returns to her father’s farm in Charleston. Ada tells Sally that she won’t be returning to Charleston any time soon—she’ll stay on her father’s property here.
Ada seems too proud to depend on anyone other than her father for help, so she turns down Sally Swanger’s offers of help. It’s interesting that Ada refuses to return to Charleston—despite the fact that it’s her childhood home, she seems to feel more comfortable and at home in Black Cove. Perhaps she’s just too depressed to go anywhere at all.
In the present, Ada walks by her father’s grave plot. Walking past the chapel, she enters Black Cove, the town near her home. She notices a man working at a mill—plowing and sowing grains. She continues walking on to where Sally Swanger lives.
We get a better sense for the size and scale of the town where Ada lives. It’s tiny and intimate: everyone seems to know what’s going on in other people’s lives.
At the Swangers’ home, Ada finds Esco Swanger, Sally’s husband. Esco greets Ada, mostly because he wants an excuse not to work. Ada realizes, with disappointment, that she’s come too late—the Swangers have already eaten. Esco walks Ada to where Sally sits and sews thread. Ada, Esco, and Sally talk about the war, and the danger of the Federals’ arrival. Ada recalls that the Swanger family opposed the war from the very beginning, and is still pretty sympathetic to the Federals.
Here, Frazier gives us a feeling for the politics in the town. There are some who are sympathetic to the Federal—or Union—forces of the North. But most support the Southern troops, who’ve fought to secede from the Union. That there’s some controversy over which side to support suggests that Ada’s town is on the border between the North and the South (i.e., it’s on the Mason-Dixon line).
Esco warns Ada of Teague and his Home Guard, a group of marauders and robbers who’ve taken the law into their own hands, taking advantage of the instability in the area. Esco has heard rumors of the Guard invading people’s houses and stealing their food and money. The Guard targets families that showed support for the Federals.
We have yet to meet any soldiers who show a sincere love for battle, or for the Union or South. The only soldiers we’ve seen are severely traumatized by what they’ve experienced in war, or, like Teague, they’re cowards taking advantage of the chaos of war for their own gain.
Esco complains that the war has “put a price on anything”—people’s time and political commitment have become newly valuable commodities. He adds that there have also been many ill omens lately—premature births, eclipses, dead goats, etc.
Esco highlights two major themes of the book—the uncertainty of the future in the face of trauma and war, and the widespread system of bartering (“tit for tat,” or “quid pro quo”) that goes on in America at the time. This is particularly the case because paper money is so variable and untrustworthy during this period, with the South printing its own money but having little to back it up.
Sally asks Ada if she’s ready to go back to Charleston yet, but Ada admits that she’s not. Ada tells Sally she hasn’t heard anything from Charleston—she has no idea if her father’s fortune is still intact. Esco suggests that Ada look into a well, so that she can see her future. Reluctantly, Ada agrees. She stares into a deep well and notices a strange wheel shape at the bottom. She also sees a vision of a strange man, walking down a road.
It’s not yet clear what, if anything, Ada’s vision at the bottom of the well means. She thinks she sees a man walking down a road, but of course, this could just reflect her desire to be reunited with Inman (from whom she’s received a letter recently). One thing is clear: the future is highly uncertain, thanks in no small part to the damage caused by the Civil War.
Esco asks Ada if she saw anything in the well, and Ada replies that she didn’t. Sally offers her food inside. After her meal, Ada leaves the Swanger house and walks back to the farm. On her way home, she stares up at Cold Mountain.
Ada’s refusal to discuss her vision suggests that she’s not sure if she really saw anything at all, but also that she’s not confident enough in what she saw to discuss it with others. These both point to the same thing: the uncertainty of all signs and predictions of the future in the novel.
Ada remembers coming to the town of Black Cove six years ago, hoping to cure Monroe of his tuberculosis. Monroe’s doctors in Charleston recommended that they all move out of the city so that Monroe could get some fresh air. Ada had never seen mountains before arriving at Cold Mountain. She was delighted to find Monroe so interested in Cold Mountain’s foliage and animals. She thinks, “I would follow this old man to Liberia if he asked me to do so.”
Ada didn’t choose to come to Black Cove of her own free will—she came out of loyalty to her aged father, whom she seems to have loved dearly. While Ada’s relationship with her father is touching and poignant, it also signals her immaturity. No matter what she wants, Ada can’t spend the rest of her life guarding her father’s memory—she has to move on with her life, and learn to live as her own woman.
When Monroe and Ada first arrived at Black Cove, Monroe made a point of introducing himself to his new congregation, one family at a time. His congregation was mostly made up of unshaven, dirty, but decent people. Shortly after arriving, Monroe visited Sally and Esco, accompanied by Ada. Monroe proceeded to teach Esco to read, and he educated both Esco and Sally in the subtleties of the Bible. Esco had a particularly limited understanding of Christ’s sacrifice—Monroe spent hours explaining the concept of the holy trinity to him. It was only much later that Monroe realized the truth: Esco and Sally were lapsed Baptists, meaning that they already knew all about Christ. Esco, wanting to give Monroe something do so, had feigned ignorance the whole time. After Monroe found out about Esco’s prank, he became good friends with the Swangers. Eventually the Swangers joined the church.
In this amusing section, we get the idea that Monroe is out of touch with his own congregation. He’s a good man, and very well-meaning, but he’s so unfamiliar with what the average person in Black Cove is capable of understanding that he’s ready to believe that an elderly man has never heard of the Holy Trinity before. This vicariously suggests that Ada is even more out of touch with her neighbors than Monroe is—she has no real connection to the town of Black Cove. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Ada feels no need to farm her own land in Black Cove—not only does she not know how to farm it; she also doesn’t feel that it really belongs to her.
Ada goes to sleep, and has a strange dream in which she’s standing at a train station. She sees a glass case containing the bones of a man, which glow and slowly become covered in flesh. She climbs onto the train, and realizes that it’s leading her out to Charleston, “in the past.” Ada wakes up late at night, and realizes that the man in the case was Monroe, her own father.
The symbolism of Ada’s dream is unclear. Perhaps Ada is realizing the truth about her relationship with her father: Monroe was a good man, but Ada can’t spend the rest of her life remembering him, without being “carried” back into the past.
A new day begins, and Ada wonders what will become of her when she returns to Charleston. She’ll probably have to ingratiate herself with some of Monroe’s old friends—indeed, she’ll probably need to get married soon. Ada finds the prospect of getting married terrifying—when she lived in Charleston, she avoided suitors as much as possible. When she was nineteen, for instance, she turned down two separate marriage proposals.
Here, we begin to see why Ada is so opposed to returning to her childhood home. Although Ada was born in Charleston, she doesn’t really think of it as her home at all—on the contrary, she associates Charleston with marriage. Society expects Ada to marry, but it seems that she has no intention of doing so. While this might seem a little immature of Ada, we can sense that Ada feels a strong desire to be free and independent—but of course, independence also requires a self-sufficiency that Ada is sorely lacking.
Ada sits on her porch, and sees a figure walking toward her. It’s a young woman. Without asking, the woman sits next to Ada on the porch. She explains to Ada that “Old Lady Swanger” has told her that Ada is in need of some help. Ada admits that this is true, and the woman—who introduces herself as Ruby—immediate begins telling Ada how to farm the property: she’ll need to plow, plant, harvest, etc.
Although Ada has turned down help from Sally Swanger, Sally still gives it to Ada, anyway. Instead of sending Ada money or supplies, she sends Ada a friend and helper: Ruby. Ruby will give Ada companionship, while also teaching her how to take care of herself.
Ada quickly grows to like Ruby. Ruby explains that she’s not exactly a servant or a hired hand—something more like an adviser. Ruby makes it clear that she won’t be Ada’s servant; they’ll be something like equals. As they talk and laugh, Ada notices the rooster that attacked her earlier. Without hesitation, Ruby gets up and breaks the rooster’s neck. She immediately begins making plans to cook the rooster.
Critics have detected homoerotic themes in the relationship between Ruby and Ada (consider that Ada was thinking about how much she hates the idea of marriage right before she met Ruby for the first time!). Whether you buy this or not, it’s important to see that Ruby and Ada’s relationship isn’t one of master and servant—it’s based in equality, cooperation, and friendship.