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I read Rash’s Saints at the River a few years back and swore never to go near the guy again. I found Saints a preachy environmentalist tract with a few stereotyped, two-dimensional characters tacked on to make it look like a novel.  But a friend (and her book club) liked Serena so much I broke my vow and picked it up. Good move, and thanks, Janet.

The year is 1929, market’s just crashed. Serena and her new timber baron husband, whom she and everyone else addresses merely as Pemberton, arrive in Waynesville, NC to begin their new life. They’re soulmates in mind, body, spirit, believing themselves transcendent and destined. Things start a little rough. Waiting at the station is a pregnant teenager and her father. Her father has a knife. Complications ensue, but the Pembertons brush such trifles aside.

They’re concerned with reaping timber and riches, with celebratingtheir unique love, and with clear-cutting everyone who gets in their way as they would a forested hillside. The biggest problem is a tribe of pesky politicians and journalists who want to establish what later becomes the Smoky Mountains National Park. At this point, the government is in the process of buying some acreage and eminent domaining their way onto the rest.

Most of the time we spend in the company of Pemberton and/or Serena, or with young Rachel, mother of Pemberton’s love child. However, in between, we get a sort of Greek chorus of workmen in the woods commenting on the action, providing us an insight and perspective that I think gives the book a unique and unforgettable texture. Hard not to think of Faulkner and his townspeople.

Perhaps as significant as Serena and her character, which one commentator thought made Lady MacBeth look soft, is Rash’s language. It’s often so poetic it almost becomes a character in itself and, though there is plenty here about the destruction of the land wrought by greedy capitalists, creates in Serena an experience in the humanity and inhumanity of the human heart rather than the polemic that isSaints at the River is:

–The Land’s angle became more severe, the light waning, streaked as if cut with scissors and braided to the ridge piece by piece.

–[Dragons used to breathe fire] but they evolutioned out of it to survive.And like that.

Plus the details.

Rash gives meticulous accounts of both the machinery and the motion of each task involved in each part of the story, whether it’s felling hickories or digging ginseng. The Shay locomotive, the mattock in a linen bag, the training of the Berkute Eagle from Mongolia.

Plus the artistic economy.

The old Chekovian saw about an author’s obligations after introducing a gun in the first act? Rash observes it to the last inch. From the Bowie knife (you’ll think he left it out, but he didn’t.) to the bag of marbles and more besides.

Plus conjuring and fortune telling and other such mystical doings.

And the reason I haven’t spent more time discussing Serena’s character? Commentary is no substitute for reading her story for yourself.

If all that isn’t intriguing enough for you, try this:

Where else are you going to experience a fight between a Komodo Dragon and an Eagle? I know you’ll want to know how that turns out.

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