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Wednesday, 05 April 2006 00:00

An attempt to straighten the world

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There is a passage in the heart of Ron Rash’s novel, The World Made Straight, in which Leonard Shuler remembers a visit to Shelton Laurel with his grandfather shortly before Shuler leaves to attend the University of North Carolina.

As they stand before a historic marker, reading the details of the Civil War massacre, the old man tells his grandson that a Union doctor — Leonard’s great-great grandfather — had witnessed the slaughter of 13 old men and young boys on a cold February morning in 1863.

Leonard wonders to what extent the doctor might have been a participant in an event that pitted neighbor against neighbor. As the old man surveys the meadow, he says, “You know a place is haunted when it feels more real than you are.”

Such a place is Madison County’s Shelton Laurel.

More than 100 years after the Shelton Laurel massacre, the events of that fateful day continue to divide the lives of the descendants — both victims and perpetrators. The legacy of guilt and outrage hangs like a shadow over the small community as though stubbornly waiting for a decisive act that will finally bring both redemption and justice.

However, by the spring of 1973, Leonard Shuler’s promising future is in shambles. In his first year of teaching, a vindictive student plants drugs in Leonard’s car, thereby wrecking his teaching career. When the frightened, young teacher pleads guilty on the advice of a school administrator (in order to avoid a prison sentence), his wife abandons him, marries again and moves to Hawaii with their daughter.

Dejected and unemployed, Leonard returns to Shelton Laurel where he ekes out a dubious existence as a “pot and pills” distributor for Carlton Toomey, the local drug dealer. Living in a rusty trailer with two Plott hounds (and Dena, an abused drug addict) for company, Leonard appears to have “bottomed out.” He reads his great-great grandfather’s medical ledgers, drinks and broods on his status as a defrocked teacher turned drug dealer.

Then, Travis Shelton, a confused teenager, enters his life.

Like the legions of beer-drinking teenagers who loiter in parking lots in small mountain towns on Saturday nights, Travis lives in a world of diminishing opportunities.

Plagued by the harsh criticism of his embittered father and bored by his high school classes, Travis quits school and spends much of his time fishing. When he finds a marijuana patch in a remote area, he decides to “harvest” the plants and sell them to Leonard Shuler — a decision that brings about a near-fatal encounter with the owner of the pot patch, Carlton Toomey.

While recovering from injuries sustained by his encounter with Toomey, Travis is further depressed by his father’s rejection. Finally, he seeks refuge in an unlikely location — Leonard Shuler’s trailer.

With a kind of painful certitude, Leonard Shuler perceives the seeds of his own dismal condition in Travis Shelton’s aimless drift in a world of dead-end jobs, drugs and debt. The older man launches a subtle campaign to “save” Travis by encouraging him to get a GED and acquire a college education.

Since both teacher and student share a hunger to know and understand their own history, they gradually discover the dark legacy of Shelton Laurel.

At first, it seems that Travis and his mentor are well on the way to a better life. Travis finds Lori, a young girl who is determined to get a college degree. Leonard plans to visit his daughter and plans to take a job in a library. However, the past, like the bear trap that snared Travis in Carlton Tooney’s marijuana patch, proves to be a deadly snare ....

Jim Wayne Miller observes in his poem, “The Briar’s Sermon,” that the Old Testament decree regarding “the sins of the fathers” being visited on the children “unto the fourth generation” may finally be an empty and irrelevant prophecy since we have sins enough of our own — the greatest being “the sin of forgetfulness.” Certainly, Shelton Laurel’s forgotten (buried) history reflects Miller’s theme: how we have forgotten “who we are and where we came from.”

As the title suggests, The World Made Straight is concerned with our need to reconcile the inequities of our existence. How do we come to terms with the senseless horror of the world’s Shelton Laurels when they are balanced against our professed (noble) aspirations? How do we resolve the contradictions? How does the crooked become straight?

To me, Rash’s novel is a kind of literary equation. Acts of inhumanity may be “absolved” or redeemed by acts of selfless sacrifice. Perhaps the death of a 15-year-old boy named David Shelton in 1863 can be balanced against Leonard Shuler’s “sacrifice” in 1973 — a sacrifice that gives Travis Shelton a second chance. One thing is certain: Redemption in The World Made Straight is dearly bought.

This novel contains the rich imagery of Rash’s natural world — foggy coves, wind-swept ridges, the rustle of lush foliage and the trills of woodland birds. Binding it all together like a complex tapestry is Rash’s signature symbol, water. In previous works, water becomes protean, changeable. It may cleanse, rampage or obliterate.

In The World Made Straight, it is the natural abode of speckled trout — a mysterious element that Travis Shelton associates with sanctuary, safety and rebirth. Certainly, the act of fishing represents more than recreation in this novel since it involves the art of luring and capturing a hidden treasure.

The analogy is apt for the reader as well. So, welcome anglers! Cast your lines into the deep eddies of Rash’s prose and wait for ... the certain strike.

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