Friday, June 22, 2012
Rash's latest novel The Cove is set in familiar territory--Western North Carolina, specifically in the town of Mars Hill, where the small church-sponsored liberal arts college of the same name is located (undoubtedly named for the Areopagus--Mars Hill--where the apostle Paul delivered his famous sermon about the unknown God).
The protagonist Laurel Shelton lives with her brother Hank in the Cove, an dark area avoided by the locals, considered haunted. Because of her large purple birthmark, they also ostrasize Laurel, some even considering her a witch. Only Slidell, their older long-time neighbor is willing to interact with the siblings without hesitation.
The novel takes place during World War I in a part of the country where citizens don't always march off to war with blind patriotism. Not far from here, the conflicts at "Blood Madison" occurred between fellow townspeople fighting on opposing sides during the Civil War. As the story opens, some of the young men are returning from fighting, physically and emotionally scarred, including Hank, who has lost a hand.
The darkly comic antagonist of the novel is Chauncey Feith, the son of the local banker who has enlisted but remains safe in the recruiting office, playing war games with his own troop of young local boys. He drills them, preparing them to enlist once they come of age, but relegates most of his battles to the safety of challenging German books in the college library and garnering opposition to the older, once-respected German professor there. Something in his final showdown reminded me of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," in which the first person narrator (presumably Orwell) takes action against his better judgment, noting that his "whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at."
The catalyst for action in the plot occurs when Walter, an escapee from an internment camp ends up in the cove, apparently mute. He possesses a talent, however, playing the flute. In fact, when Laurel first hears him, she thinks she may be hearing one of the rare fabled Carolina parakeets. He provides a convenient suitor for Laurel, a hard worker winning the approval of her brother who plans to marry soon, but delays revealing to Laurel he must leave their cove or lose approval of the girl's father.
In Laurel Shelton, Rash has created a vulnerable, broken young woman, defensive to a fault, eager for love, curious about the sparse clues from the stranger, stuck in an exile not of her own choosing. She joins the roster of strong women--no two like--that people Ron Rash's novels and short stories. Like his other works, I know too that I can recommend The Cove to some of my pickiest readers, the one who stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish his books, then email me a note of thanks before going on to sleep.