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Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00

Rash draws on his own Civil War ties in his new novel, The World Made Straight

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

History books and literature long have recounted and regaled the Civil War, examined its long-lasting effects in determining who “we” are as a great and unified South, and how “we” are not yet ready to lay down arms between victor and vanquished.

However, there lies a certain sense of duality in Western North Carolina’s role in the Civil War. The high mountain counties were divided in their service — families and neighbors split between Union and Confederate armies. And so, “we” became a more arbitrary term.

“I think a lot of times when you grow up in the South, if you’re white at least, you think your family fought Confederate,” said author Ron Rash.

However, the mountains’ divide between Union and Confederate soldiers means there is no single “we” to exist.

“You can’t make that assumption about ‘we’ being the losers,” Rash said.

Rash, author of the critically acclaimed novels One Foot in Eden (2002), and Saints at the River (2004), has written a new novel, The World Made Straight, which delves into a Civil War ancestor’s search for redemption.

A failed school teacher discovers through reading his great-, great-grandfather’s journal that his ancestors killed 12 of a high school dropout’s family members during the Shelton-Laurel Massacre in Madison County. The school teacher essentially adopts the dropout — in trouble with drug dealers and exiled from his own family — in a guilt-driven bid to rectify his life. However, the teacher is the only one who knows of their historical connection.

The effects of the massacre at the time are chronicled in the teacher’s great-, great-grandfather’s journal as he was a Civil War era doctor. His journal begins in 1848, with records of family health histories — births, illnesses — and as the war progresses the names of many of those he treated come back around as they are killed in action. The Shelton-Laurel Massacre drives that point home.

“They took a 12-year-old boy and took him out and shot him,” Rash said, recalling a historical fact made into part of his fictional novel.

The Shelton-Laurel Massacre bears particular, if not somewhat gruesome, meaning for Rash, the first John A. Parris Jr. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. Rash’s family has lived in the Southern Appalachian mountains since the mid-1700s, intermarried with the Shelton family, and one of his ancestors was a doctor with the 64th regiment — the regiment responsible for the massacre. The regiment split before the massacre and Rash has never been able to confirm or deny his ancestor’s presence.

“I’ve always been haunted that he might have been,” Rash said.

Rash knew that the massacre would become a part of his writing. He began with poems about it, going on to spend about two and a half years researching and writing The World Made Straight.

“I think one thing I enjoyed most was doing medical research for the doctor’s journal because I really had to teach myself 19th century medicine,” Rash said.

During the 1800s medical practitioners began rejecting the Victorian Era methods of “heroic medicine” — bleeding, plastering purging, sweating and amputation. These methods often did little to help the patient, rather killing them in the process.

A new form of “quackery” grew out of patients’ personal efforts to treat their illnesses. Some were based purely on superstition, while others were more scientifically based homeopathy. Treatment was based on the theory of familiars — treating a disease with small doses of drugs that produced similar symptoms. The doctor in The World Made Straight embraces this alternative form of treatment.

The tremors from the social “earthquake” Rash calls the Civil War still roll across the historical landscape — from the rise of alternative medicine and homeopathy, which is echoed in modern medical treatments, to the industrial versus agrarian economic development above and below the Mason-Dixon line.

“That was a war that was just so important because it decided the type of nation we would be,” Rash said.

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