After swearing upon reading Saints at the River a few years back I swore off Ron Rash forever. Environmental polemic trash. A friend practically forced me to read Serena, and here I am with The Cove, my second RR book in less than a month. This one falls squarely in the 4-5 star category of Serena, and I may end up making Rash my author discovery of 2012.
The Cove is a place, haunted and cursed if you ask anyone in nearby Mars Hill. The sun seldom shines. The chestnut trees are dying, and to reside there is to die mysteriously. The folks who live there in 1918, the year in which Rash sets us down are Hank Shelton and his sister, Laurel. Born and raised in this unhallowed ground whose entrance is hung with bottles and other totems hung by locals to keep the evil from escaping into their world. Hank is one-handed, having just returned from WWI. Laurel is similarly cursed by a birthmark that labels her as a witch to various folks in the area. Two cursed and lame.
I’ve heard it said that stories fall into two motifs: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. The Cove falls into the latter category when Laurel discovers a strange man on the hillside near dead from yellow jacket or hornet stings. Turns out Walter’s mute. A third cursed one. He sticks around to help with the farm. Romance ensues, of course. Laurel has been shunned by the community, lives her hard life in isolation, is bright and fairly learned for one in her situation, and dreams of escaping. Her dreams are symbolized by the bright yellow parakeets which sing and fly occasionally through and above the gloomy atmosphere of the cove. Many think the birds and their songs extinct, and her parents literally attempted to shoot out of the sky for fear of losing fruit from the orchard. So she’s ripe for a relationship.
Parallel with what’s going on in the cove is the story of Chauncey, Mars Hill’s recruiter and self-appointed purifier of the community from all traces of Germanic threat. For instance, a professor at a local college or any of his German speaking neighbors whom Chauncey suspects of various levels of espionage. Chauncey’s an oaf and a brute and a coward in a uniform with a teensy bit of authority which gives him grandiose notions that drive the climactic the action. Apropos of nothing much, I’m reminded a bit of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which posits a situation in Asheville NC (after which Mars Hill is patterned) involving the McCarthy era, with similar results.
So those are the characters and locales. Rash, with his exquisite ability to provide both the details of the lives and tasks of his characters as well as their language, makes it all superbly real. Whether it’s the actual language of the people in this time or not, it’s the language of The Cove, and Rash gives it an authenticity that surpasses the need for linguistic accuracy.* * Of course, for all I know, it could be linguistically accurate. Just doesn’t matter, is my poing.
How the elements of the story interact and play out create both an intensely personal story of romance and loneliness as well as a big-picture comment on the psychology and consequences of prejudice and xenophobia. The Cove gives both heart and mind plenty of action, and by the end of the book you feel not only that you’ve been there and done that, but that somehow it mattered.
–You’ll find dozens of passages with this sort of concrete detail that firmly anchors you in time and place and action:
Laurel. . .took the dough tray off its peg and set it on the cook table. As she opened the meal gum and scooped out flour with the straight cup. . .
–And dozens of poetic marvels such as:
[Walter’s flute] wasn’t so much a soaring sound but something on the song’s surface, like a water striker crossing a creek pool. . . .the guitar and flute tightly wove their sounds and they untangled them, did that several times till Slidell shook his head and the guitar’s strings stilled.
–And scores of colorful speech figures that give the book that authentic texture that few “dialect” renderings possess:
–A man with lots of swivels to him
–I’d put a suffering on him.
–A drearisome day
–I was shameful of it.
–Maybe that’ll help smooth my dander.
–the brightfulness near blinds you at first.