Sunday, September 27, 2020

 “Write what you know” is a bit of writing advice that Ron Rash follows consistently. Whether in modern day or during the Civil War, his novels, stories, and poetry are set in the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina. 

In his latest book, In the Valley, a collection of short stories and a novella, he opens with a story set near the scene of the Shelton Laurel incident, where tensions between Unionist and Confederate sympathizers came to a head with the killing of thirteen Union sympathizers, one a young boy. Rash explored these dark pages of history in his novel The World Made Straight and returns to the rural landscape in “Neighbors.” In this story, a widow is confronted by soldiers purportedly hunting for men loyal to the union, while taking scarce food and livestock. Dependent on neighbors for survival, Rebecca, the protagonist, must keep her late husband’s loyalties secret to avoid jeopardizing herself and her young children.


“When All the Stars Fell,” set in more modern hard times, shows a son in a caught in a dilemma between his father’s unswerving integrity and his own need to get even with what he sees as just one more wealthy, powerful man taking advantage of their family construction business because he can.


Several of Rash’s protagonists are measuring others’ sorrows and losses against their own. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” a helicopter pilot taking tourists to view the changing colors in the mountains, bends the rules to let a broken man rain down gifts on his former stepchildren, unearthing memories of his own service in the Vietnam War. 


Jake, a Brevard art professor, in “L’homme Blessé,” is still reeling from his young wife’s sudden death a year earlier when Shelby Tate, a former student, asks to show him the primitive paintings with which her late great uncle covered his walls after returning from the service in Europe in the mid-40s.When  Jake recognizes the strange animal images from photographs of the Pech Merle cave in France, he goes with Shelby to visit an old man who had served in the war with her uncle to solve the mystery.


In small towns just off I-40, Rash peoples his stories with the broken, the lawless, people caught between good and evil, between helping others or looking the other way. While his stories all have a darkness, they give a glimmer, sometimes just a hint of light. Often the stories end without clear resolution, letting readers imagine what the characters might find just down around the corner.


Opening the pages of In the Valley, Rash’s fans have to fight the temptation to turn to the end of the book to reach the title novella “In the Valley, “a shorter sequel to Serena, his novel from 2008. The title character Serena Pemberton returns to the timberlands she has left for clearing as the deadline for the project completion nears. Many of the characters from the novel—the ones that survived—return for this narrative. In this tale, less a retelling of Macbeth this time, but no less Shakespearean, Rash’s timbermen are forced to work at a deadly pace, with too little food or rest. Serena’s henchman Galloway and his blind mother, with her evil gift of second sense, doom any who oppose Serena or try to escape her reach. Aware that Rachel Harmon and her child Jacob, the illegitimate son of Serena’s late husband, may not have put enough distance between themselves and the amoral timber baroness, Ross, a minor character in the early novel, sees his options narrow.


While the novella, like the earlier novel, lacks stereotypical heroes and antagonists, Rash leaves no question about the true villains and victims in his story.

One of the perennial favorites at Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Rash will appear in this year's virtual festival.



1 comment:

Glenda Beall said...

I listened to this book instead of reading it. The stories are compelling and your review is excellent. I like Ron Rash books.