Serena by Ron Rash
Ecco, New York, 2008
Serena by Ron Rash, an Appalachian poet and O. Henry prize winner, is a mix of Southern Gothic and Shakespearean drama. A book I found difficult to read but could not stop reading, full of cruelty and murder. I was hooked from the opening paragraph.
When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young women pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.
Rash sets his novel during the great depression and frames it around the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park and the struggle for control of the land and resources on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Pemberton and his new bride, Serena, own territory the Federal government wants for the park and have pledged to strip their land and any land around it they can control before the park is created.
Pemberton is a man of his time, a city dweller, wealthy, greedy and in thrall to his wife. He treats his workers callously for, Serena says, “…they’ll work harder if they live like Spartans”.
Serena is a creature of pure avarice, a character from Greek myth, a gorgon , allowing nothing and no one to stand in her way, determined to cut down every tree in these mountains and move on to other forests, other continents. She soon has control over her husband and the logging camp. She even trains a Berkute, a Golden Eagle from Kazakhstan to hunt the deadly rattle snakes that live in and around the camp threating the loggers lives, sowing fear and slowing down the harvest of trees.
The bird’s arrival was an immediate source of rumor and speculation, especially among Snipes and his crew. The men had come out of the dining hall to watch the two boys lift their cage off the flat car, the youths solemn and ceremonious as they carried the crate to the stable. Dunbar believed the creature would be used as a messenger in the manner of a homing pigeon. McIntyre cited a verse from Revelation while Stewart suggested the Pembertons intended to fatten up the bird and eat it. Ross suggested the eagle had been brought in to peck out the eyes of any worker who closed them on the job…
Rash creates a chorus of loggers as a back drop to George and Serena’s ambitions and a cadre of corrupt polititians and government agents to help smooth their way, but it is not just the characters and plotting that make Serena such a wonder. It is Rash’s mastery of language that had me reading long into the night.
The road leveled out a few yards before unfurling downward. Below in the distance were a few muted clusters of light. Rachel remembered how a month ago she’d sat before a hearth of glowing coals and listened to Jacob’s breathing, thinking how after her mother had left when Rachel was five there’d been so much emptiness in the cabin she could hardly bear to be inside it, because everywhere you looked there was something that reminded her that her mother was gone. Even the littlest thing like a sewing needle left on the fireboard or a page turned down in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. The same after her father died. But that night a month ago, as she listened to Jacob’s breathing, the cabin had felt fuller than it had in a long time. More alive too, a place where living held sway more than those dead and gone.
To me, Serena is like a mountain ballad, deep and mournful and also beautiful. In the end goodness confronts the force of greed and the lust for power. There is redemption. Ron Rash has written an American novel that I find absolutely brilliant.
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