It was inevitable that Appalachian writer Ron Rash would eventually wade into the rich and sweeping storyline.
The Appalachian landscape is Rash’s fabled literary canvas, and Serena is no exception. Like in his other five novels, landscape is an indomitable force in Serena that not only drives the plot and molds the characters but is the stage for an epic battle of colliding worlds.
The moneyed timber moguls from the North descend upon Appalachia, exploiting its massive forests and impoverished people for their own profit, destroying the landscape and exacting a human toll as well.
The clash rages on, as political foes of the timber barons try to halt the carnage and create a national park from the ashes.
Of all Rash’s novels, Serena was perhaps most difficult because this story really happened, to real people in real places. The infamous logging era of the Smokies is so rooted in the Appalachian history books, so well chronicled that readers would tolerate only a small measure of poetic license.
“I think it is my most ambitious book. There is no doubt about that. This is probably my big book, in terms of ambition and length,” said Rash, who teaches at WCU and holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies.
It was the first time Rash ever truly dabbled in the genre of historical fiction. And he did it well, witnessed by the bestseller lists and sundry accolades heaped on Serena.
Nonetheless, it had to be cloaked in the trappings of a good novel: mystery, romance, murder, double-crosses and, ultimately, philosophical introspection.
“We got 100 books back here about logging,” said George Frizzell, the head of Western Carolina University’s special library collections. “But he really wanted to capture the time and the spirit and the people — that’s why people read works of literature. He created living characters and personalities.”
Rash clearly sympathized with those trying to stop the timber barons and save the Smokies by creating a national park. But in true Rash form, the real heroes were the rural Appalachian people.
“It was always a way of honoring the people who created the park, but also the loggers who were doing these incredibly tough jobs to help their family,” Rash said. “One of the roles of literature and what I want to do in a book like this is honor those people in the region.”
Those people are, of course, Rash’s own people, his roots steeped in the Western North Carolina mountains.
But Rash’s Appalachian characters in Serena don’t exactly prevail — they barely persevere. They were burdened with hard luck and had no choice but to play out the hand they were dealt until the bitter end, which for many came sooner and more suddenly than expected.
But the Appalachian characters demanded respect.
Rash forsakes the stereotype of mountain people naively duped into the deadly work of felling their own forests, trading their precious landscape for a pittance while the timber barons walked away with a fortune, only to realize their mistake in hindsight.
To the contrary, the mountaineers who went to work in the logging camps realized the damage they were doing and knew they were culpable in it.
“That to me is the tragic part,” Rash said. “These men would have been aware of this. They were aware of what it was doing to the streams, that the trout were dying, what the runoff was doing, but they were stuck in this terrible dilemma.”
The book follows a logging crew through its daily travails, seeing the events through their eyes. Toward the end of the book, the crew reflects on the wasteland of slash and stumps “where not a single live thing rose,” the mountains likened to a “skinned hide.” The men looked out on “what was in part their handiwork” as the following dialogue unfolded:
“I had my part in the doing of it.”
“We had to feed our families.”
“Yes we did. What I’m wondering is how we’ll feed them once all the trees is cut and the jobs leave.”
“At lest what critters are left have a place they can run to.”
“The park you mean?”
“Yes sire, trouble is they ain’t going to let us stay in there with them.”
“Running folks out so they can run the critters in. That’s a hell of a thing.”
This final banter among loggers is about as preachy as Rash gets. That’s by design.
“I think that is respecting your reader. And also I would view myself as more of a witness than an advocate,” Rash said. He is capturing the events, not staking out right from wrong.
Rash places readers in the trenches alongside one rag-tag crew of loggers as they soldier into the deadly woods season after season. The story faithfully returns to the crew, deploying a clever literary device in the process.
“Of course, they were the Greek chorus. They were a cross-section of Appalachia, and they stand on the sidelines and talk about what is going on,” said Gary Carden, a writer and historian from Sylva. “I thought he did a beautiful job on it.”
That’s a lot coming from Carden, an expert on Appalachian culture and heritage who isn’t easily pleased and doesn’t take well to misrepresentations.
But Rash captured the complexity of it all, Carden said.
“Appalachian people went to work for the people destroying the country,” Carden said. “If you were hungry and had the kids at home you took the work. But that employment was temporary. When the trees ran out they had no work. After you are through destroying everything it is time to move on and destroy something else.”
Rash sees contemporary parallels to the logging era, like mountaintop removal coal mining, which sacrifices landscape for short-term economic survival. And he can’t help but wonder, what happens when the last coal is removed?
The last witnesses
Rash hoped to capture life in the logging camps from the proletarian perspective — the men and boys who went into the high mountains, squatting in make-shift labor camps to do battle against the forests of their homeland.
There are mountains of historical papers on the logging era. He mined various record repositories diligently, but Rash needed to hear about camp life firsthand.
He was nearly too late. It was 2005 when he began researching Serena. By then, most who had worked in the logging camps of the 1910s and 1920s were dead.
But he managed to find a few old-timers, then in their 90s, who remembered the lumber camps and agreed to be interviewed.
“They were very generous in telling me,” Rash said.
“I asked them the question ‘What did you fear the most on the job?’ and there were plenty of those.”
Death and injury loomed large for the loggers in Serena.
“It was incredibly dangerous work. I don’t think I exaggerated it. I could let the reader decide that but the thing that struck me was how incredibly dangerous it was,” Rash said.
There was a litany of ways you could get killed or maimed as a logger. A tree falling on you was just the beginning. The loggers in the book met every fate imaginable. They were poisoned by rattlesnake bites, drowned in splash ponds, struck by lightening, impaled by axes, beheaded by snapped cables, frozen in snow storms, toppled from ledges and crushed by machinery.
One of the best anecdotes Rash gleaned from the old-time loggers he interviewed was the dreaded “widow-makers.” When a tree toppled, its limbs would snag in the canopy of neighboring trees and remain there, suspended, threatening to crash down on a hapless soul without warning.
“Most of all, the sharded limbs called widow-makers that waited minutes or hours or even days before falling earthward like javelins,” Rash wrote in Serena.
The widow-makers not only had a rich name but were a perfect metaphor for the impending doom that hung over the loggers, for the inescapable tragedy that defined Appalachian people in Rash’s books.
Carden agrees Rash didn’t exaggerate the danger.
“When I used to go to family reunions, I was always seeing someone on crutches or with one arm,” said Carden, an Appalachian native. “The logging industry was dangerous and you didn’t have any insurance either.”
Lines of fresh workers were always at the ready, jumping off the train cars and loafing about the commissary steps, waiting to claim the jobs of those injured or killed.
“There were all these men ready to replace them,” Rash said. “It was almost like going into battle and reinforcements coming in.”
Tough as nails
Rash has often recounted how the story of Serena unfurled around a bold and bewitching image of a woman on horseback riding along a mountain ridge, and how that image would become the novel’s central character.
“She ends up being the destructive forces that destroyed Appalachia,” Carden said. “She is bigger than life. She is terrifying because in a sense she is invulnerable. You can’t defeat her. She has too many weapons. She’s got that goddamn eagle. She is like the mafia.”
Rash noted that Serena’s character was not intended to vilify every timber baron.
“I am not saying every camp was like the one in the book, in terms of the kind of people that ran it,” Rash said.
There’s another female lead in the book: an Appalachian woman who bears the illegitimate son of Serena’s husband and becomes the unfortunate focus of her wrath after Serena learns she is unable to bear children herself.
It’s through this character, Rachel, that Rash offers a glimpse into the life of a subsistence farmer in Appalachia, trailing Rachel as she chinks the chimney on her cabin with a putty of mud and horse droppings or digs ginseng roots to sell. Like Serena, Rachel is tough as nails.
“Serena had tremendous reserves of energy. It is perfectly logical that an Appalachian woman would have the same qualities and she uses them to survive,” Carden said. “It is duality.”
Rash’s plots are haunted by an Appalachian fatalism: life is hard, so hard it sometimes beats you, and try as you might, escape isn’t always possible.
“It’s a hard place this world can be. No wonder a baby cries coming into it. Tears from the very start,” Rash wrote in Serena, spoken by a granny woman named Widow Jenkins.
It sounds an awful lot like a line Rash heard from his own grandmother, who lived on a farm near Boone.
“She told me late in her life ‘We worked so hard just to survive that I never knew if we were happy or not,’” Rash recalled.
Carden said the only complaint he hears about Rash is the intrinsic tragedy that beguiles his characters, an underlying darkness.
“My response is ‘Good, because it is dark.’ If you are going to talk about my culture, talk about it warts and all, don’t try to make it pretty for me. There are some people who say ‘Just lie to me.’ Ron won’t do that,” Carden said.
But Rash does give readers a dab of satisfaction to cling to at the end.
“The chickens come home to roost. It is attribution. It may be a century in coming, but justice does come. Finally,” Carden said.
Editor’s note: The long-anticipated release of the movie “Serena” is a verified flop, but the best selling namesake novel by Appalachian writer Ron Rash was anything but. This week, we checked in with Rash to revisit the inspiration behind the 2008 bestseller and its historical underpinnings.
Coming next week: Felling a massive tree with hand tools and dragging it down a mountain with a team of horses is a remarkable feat, but nearly a lost skill. Next week, hear from old-timers who still remember how it was done and join local historians as they journey back in time to the days of the early logging towns.