"Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24 Charles Frazier wears the accomplishment of a first novel a little awkwardly, as if it were a suit, slightly too big just yet, that eventually he will grow to fit. He is shy, unprepossessing; his boyish, tousled hair is at odds with the salt-and-pepper grizzle of his neatly trimmed beard. Whereas his voice is almost too quiet to hear in a bustling coffee shop, it lifts rich, full and bold off the pages of "Cold Mountain." This is the story of W. P. Inman and his perilous anabasis -- his physical, spiritual homeward trek -- through the Civil War-torn highlands of North Carolina; and it the story that Frazier, a son of the mountains, returned from a momentary exile in Colorado to write. "After moving back to North Carolina, I spent a lot of time getting to know home again. I would go up into the mountains every chance I got. I'm not really sure what I had in mind; I was keeping a journal full of local history, natural history, recollections of family and things that the older people I knew said and did and how they lived. "Then my father told me this family story about this ancestor of ours and how he deserted from the Civil War and walked home. I was really fascinated just by the walking part, this notion of walking through a state in turmoil that was coming apart at the seams. "After my father told me the story about this guy, I started doing some Civil War research, but I tried to keep it pretty confined. I didn't want it to take over and have the book become a generals-and-battlefields kind of book. "It helped that what my father knew about him you could write on a postcard. And what I could confirm, absolutely and positively, through the state archives wasn't an awful lot more than that. So what I had was just a kind of a series of points, and then I was free within those points to do what I wanted since there weren't any facts to, well, get in the way." Inman steps out of the war and out of time. The path to survival amidst roving Federals, sadistic troopers in the Confederacy's Home Guard and all manner of bandits and scalawags lies in the mountains. Here is where all highland sons, Frazier not least among them, have depended for generations on a stern but enveloping nurture. And here is where a poignant, parallel story entwines the fate of well-bred, impoverished Ada with that of a feral woman-child, Ruby, whose origins seem not so much of the mountains as within them. "My family's been in the Southern Appalachians for 200 years, and they pretty much -- like an awful lot of people there -- came shortly after the Jacobite demise at Culloden and the resulting Highland Clearances in Scotland. I think what they were looking for was someplace that felt a lot like Scotland. And it does. There's an awful lot of Celtic feeling in the mountains, which probably explains why we've always felt different from the rest of the South. When I was a kid, a lot of people thought anything much east of Raleigh was like another state -- you didn't entirely trust the intentions of those people, and in some ways they were different culturally and had different customs. I guess one way to look at it is that 'down there' there are a lot of people with English heritage, and in the mountains, you've got a lot of Scots and Irish. And those two traditions don't always mix all that well." Nor, Frazier seems to think, can one take for granted that the past will mix all that well with the present -- unless one pays some heed to the blending. "When we bought our little farm-in-the-making that we've got outside Raleigh, I wanted our daughter Annie to have some sense of her placement. I think most people don't at all have a sense of their placement in the physical world. We've got a creek running through our place, and I took her out one day and we followed the creek as best we could in the car down to the lake; from there we followed it on the map down to the ocean. And then, on the days of summer solstice and winter solstice, we sat out on the porch and watched where the sun hit the horizon and marked those particular spots from a particular observation point. We've identified trees and animals; we've looked for -- and found -- Indian arrowheads in the field. I just want her -- to the extent that we can discover together, for ourselves -- to feel like, okay, now I've got some sense of where this place is...which is its own form of literacy, I suppose."