After he finished his magnificent novel Serena, Ron Rash said during his book tour that he was finished with the novel form. It took three years out of his life and away from poetry, his preferred form of expression. Let us be thankful that he did not regard his words. Because he works 10-12 hours per day for a month on the first draft, being willing to start another novel, he said, must be like having a second child: one has to forget the pain.
As he did so well in Serena (currently being filmed with Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games as Serena), Rash conjures the time and place with a poetic clarity seldom equaled by any current novelist. His early and continuing interest in poetry and his confidant use of just the right word make his work stand out while his plot builds through an emotional crescendo to it appropriate and inevitable ending. The setting is dark and menacing, and the intersection of these lives within the context of mountain culture informs the conflict that drives this outstanding novel. It is not a "feel good" novel, but it is a superbly written one that will linger in your mind long after the story ends. Recognizing that one writes best what one knows, Rash returns to the mountains of North Carolina, near the small town and college of Mars Hill and a little-known spot called Shelton Laurel. It is the back story of the latter which underscores the mood for this dark tale of woe.
Early in the Civil War a band of Confederate soldiers rounded up and shot to death a dozen unarmed men too old to fight and two boys too young to fight. Their only crime was a partiality for the Union side. Even today, Rash says, if you walk to the spot in Shelton Laurel where the 12-year old boy was murdered, you just know that something evil happened. Remembered even today, that atrocity (The leader of the Confederates was never punished.) must have still felt fresh in World War I, the time of this evocative novel of love, death, and war.
Laurel Shelton (the name is well-chosen) is the young protagonist. She lives next to the Cove, reputed to be a residence for unseen and unknown demons, a place where the sun penetrates only in the middle of the day. She is considered a witch for no reason other than she has a birthmark. The people who live in that area walk to the other side of the street when she appears in town. Her brother Hank has returned from the war in Europe, having lost one hand in the fighting. Contributing to the aura of death and destruction is the continuing disappearance of the Carolina Parakeet, a beautiful and now extinct (1924) bird which had one fatal flaw. When a bird was shot out of the flock, the remainder of the birds, refusing to leave their fellow, continued to fly in a circle until all of them were shot and killed.
One other historical fact underpins this novel. Before the United States became a belligerent in WWI, the German ship Vaterland docked in New York. Its crew had the run of the city until we became involved. Then, the ship was appropriated and renamed the Leviathan and served as a US troop ship while the original crew men were interned in Western North Carolina. Because they were German, they were bad in the same sense as Japanese Americans were in WWII.
While washing clothes in a nearby spring one day, Laurel hears a musical sound that turns out to be a flute played by Walter, a self-professed mute who is trying to find his way back to New York City. The mysterious stranger, a veritable Pied Piper, and his flute have come to town. Laurel, who has traveled only in her imagination through books in her brief schooling, is intrigued by the man and his music. Ostracized even by her classmates, she feels a kinship to this man.
Rash draws clear lines between the good and evil characters. Chauncey Feith, for example, is the army recruiter in town. With no military experience, he has no compunction in sending boys away to die and he is determined to root out any friendliness to Germany. This includes persecuting a professor of languages at Mars Hill College and attempting to remove all German books from the public library. His small town McCarthyism sets into motion a wave that will overwhelm any who stand in his way.
The Cove beautifully illustrates Rash's interest in poetry and the sophistication of language even among those who are in the literal backwoods. The use of metaphor and simile throughout is remarkable. Phrases such as "let the sun immerse her face in a warm, waterless bath," "snowflakes light as dogwood petals," and "feel a lavish of aloneness" enhance the setting and help bring the characters to life in language true to their time and place. The people of Madison County, NC, the setting of this story, really do talk that way. Rash related a story that emphasized the uniqueness of speech patterns that still exist there today. The director of Serena called him from London to hear him speak and confirm the language he was reading in that book. Rash has now published four books of poetry and eight of fiction.