Novels written by a Western Carolina University professor and by his former student are among the 147 titles in the running for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, widely acknowledged as one of the top — and most lucrative — honors in the publishing world.
Ron Rash, WCU’s Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture, is nominated for his Above the Waterfall, while David Joy, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WCU, is among the nominees for his Where All Light Tends to Go.
Can you find redemption within your own consequences?
In The Risen, the latest work from famed Southern Appalachian writer Ron Rash, the plot focuses on two Jackson County teenage brothers, an out-of-town femme fatale, and a decades-old question of what really happened to her — and also them — in the process.
“How near at hand it was
If they had eyes to see it.”
There are plenty of Ron Rash fans who have been waiting — and waiting — for “Serena” the movie to come out, and they won’t let all those bad reviews rain on their parade.
Just because something looks good on paper doesn’t mean it’ll work in method.
Case in point, the new Hollywood film “Serena,” which is a silver screen adaptation of the Ron Rash novel of the same name. The book, a Great Depression-era murder drama amid the Western North Carolina logging industry, was a New York Times bestseller, with the film roping in two of the hottest stars in modern day cinema — Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Little bits of local lore riddle the pages of Ron Rash’s Serena.
“As a fiction writer I know I am going to get things wrong, but you do the best you can to get those details as correct as possible,” Rash said. “If we can get enough things right, I think it allows the reader to stay in the dream. Very specific, authentic details allow the reader to believe everything else that is being made up.”
It’s been nearly a century since the logging boom swept across Appalachia, but the story is timeless, forever engraved on the landscape and in the psyche of mountain people.
“It permanently and irrevocably changed the entire face of Western North Carolina,” said Jason Brady, a special collections librarian at Western Carolina University.
The beauty of literature is its solely unique power of transportation.
That beauty lies in the meticulous arrangement of words, phrases and sentences on a simple black and white page, where upon decoding the message you conjure endless colors, scents and landscapes. You find yourself walking the streets of far away places in forgotten eras, faces and voices long since put six feet under, all covered up in dust under the bed of a modern world.
The key to opening the portals to these places lies in the fingertips of the writer. Sitting down and letting the images in your mind pour out onto the blank page is a sacred act, one where you let the story unfold in front of you rather than racing to find a conclusion. Crafting a story is a delicate and often misunderstood process. To find the perfect word, one must travel to the deepest, darkest corners of their soul, in search of the ideal conflict that is located at the foundation of every great story.
Ron Rash’s latest collection of short stories echos a theme that runs through all of his works: an awareness that Appalachia is in transition, that it is becoming something else. Of course, this is a quality that is shared by all things — what the poets call “mutability” — but in this instance, the author is mindful of what our world is becoming in contrast to what it once was. Like the drowned girl in his short story by the same title, Appalachia may be undergoing a “sea change” and will emerge as “something rich and strange.” The substance may be alien, repugnant and/or fascinating.
Just when we all thought that Ron Rash had taken his Southern Appalachian noir novels to the limit with Serena, he comes back with not only a topper, but creates a new fiction genre in the process. Rash’s new novel, The Cove, like his previous fiction, is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In this case, he’s taking his readers over the mountain from Haywood County to Madison County in and around the town of Mars Hill. While this story is a “mountain mystery” and a page-turner in the vein of his latest novel and his recent short stories, it is written in a softer tone, a slower pace. In fact, it’s a love story that is all about timing and the intricate details from which a good yarn is spun.
In a book where the saying “timing is everything,” proves to be providential, Rash has written a lovely, sensitive tale. Who would have thought that on the tails of Serena, the Duke of Dark Tales would have, could have gone in this direction? In The Cove his “new” tone of language and the storyline are consistent throughout, including the symbolically imaginative Hawthorne-like naming of his characters: Laurel Shelton (a reversal of Shelton Laurel), Ledbetter, Weatherbee, Bettingfield, Lingefelt, Lusk. And first names: Doak, Slidell, Tillman, Boyce, Jubel. This is an Appalachian chorus line of characters who add their own patinas to this portrait/landscape painting of a World War I version of Romeo & Juliet.
A young woman (Laurel) isolated in a remote cove that is “nothing but shadow land” on the outskirts of Mars Hill who is considered by local townsfolk to be a witch — due largely to the cove’s history as being “cursed” and because of a peculiar birthmark on her skin — comes across a drifter camped out on the family land. With a haunting flute melody, like the birdsong of a Carolina parakeet, wafting through the woods from up along a rock outcropping above the family farm, she goes to search out the music’s source. (Rash later describes the stranger’s flute music: “It wasn’t so much a soaring sound but something on the song’s surface, like a water strider skimming over a creek pool.”)
While Rash drags out the meeting of the two main characters with a tantalizingly deft touch, when the two finally do meet it is love at first sight — at least for Laurel, whose prospects for marriage and a helpmate to keep up the old mountain farm are near to nonexistent. The drifter turns out to be an escapee from a World War I internment camp for German prisoners in Hot Springs, which is something that Laurel and her brother don’t find out until the end of the book when Rash shifts gears — after a long courtship between Laurel and the flute-playing stranger —and the book becomes “a mountain western” complete with a local saloon, posses and search parties, lawmen and lunkheads, and of course the corn liquor.
In the telling of The Cove’s story, Rash’s language is purer, more poetic. His “touch” is softer, more finely honed. Using local language and a lusciously restrained libido, Rash’s telling is reminiscently Shakespearean. “He’s already tallied my gone hand against me,” Laurel’s brother Hank says, explaining to himself his future father-in-law’s attitude concerning his upcoming marriage. “I’d as lief not have him beading its barrel on me,” says Hank later in the book, referring to the stranger who has been brought from the woods into their cabin after nearly being stung to death by yellow jackets with “the welts on his neck and chest arguing at least as much poison as a copperhead bite.” “I need to get the daubing off you. They’ve drawn what poison they will. Besides, like Hank said, you don’t want to be mistook for a bobcat,” Laurel says to the stranger when he finally comes to consciousness and finds himself inside the Shelton cabin.
When it is revealed that the stranger is mute, Laurel remarks: “Not being able to talk … I’d think it could make you feel a lavish of aloneness.” In this literary-littered telling of a familiar tale, there’s even a lovely nod to our local-boy-made-good Thomas Wolfe when Rash slips Wolfe’s father into the storyline. One of the book’s main characters, Chauncey Feith, wanders into Wolfe’s tombstone and monument business building and carries on a conversation where reality and fiction overlap like parallel universes.
… as he walked toward Grant’s Pharmacy, Chauncey noticed the two-story brick building with W.O. Wolfe Tombstones and Monuments painted on the storefront … Someone coughed inside the shop and a few moments later an old man, tall and gaunt, stooped through the open doorway, his hands and leather apron smudged with white dust. “W.O. Wolfe at your service, sir,” the stonecutter said, and made a slight bow. “How may I assist you?” “Do you make monuments of real people?” “I do,” the older man replied, “although, as you can see, more often creatures of the celestial realm.” “And why is that?” Chauncey asked. “Perhaps they wish an image of what they aspire to be instead of what they are,” the stonecutter replied. “The better angels of our nature, corporal as well as spiritual. I can assure you, young squire, from my own humbling experience, that as we grow infirm and life’s pleasures pale we long to free ourselves from these sad declining vessels. But enough of such dispiriting parlance. An old man’s morbid reckonings are not usually the concerns of youth, nor should they be.” The stonecutter paused, licked the tip of his thumb and rubbed it on his apron, allowed a wan smile.
In the book’s suspenseful and nail-biting conclusion, the timing in actions and events in the last 20 pages give new meaning to the word “irony” with the Romeo and Juliet-like Shakespearean ending stretching minutes into what seem like hours and with mere seconds making all the difference in the world. Ron Rash, in this book and with this ending, has become a master clock-maker. With impeccable timing, meticulous craftsmanship, and flawless design, he has given us yet another mountain classic. One which, to the squeamish, will be much more palatable, perhaps, than previous books. One can only imagine what Ron Rash will come up with next as part of the traveling magic show that he conjures with each new book.