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The Cove, and The Rise of Ron Rash

April 25, 2012

Ron Rash is finally getting his due. This news is a little late; he’s been on the rise for a few years now, with the PEN/Faulkner finalist Serena and the well-received story collection Burning Bright, but it’s about to get much, much bigger. Some time ago, the film rights for Serena were sold, along with the rights to Rash’s other three novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight. It’s always nice when that happens, even if nothing comes of it, but then names started cropping up in connection to the Serena project. Angelina Jolie was rumored. Darren Aronofsky was said to be considering it. A year later, we actually do have a cast: Bradley Cooper playing opposite Jennifer Lawrence in the title role as one of the most memorable villains in recent literature, a throwback to when literary fiction actually had villains besides the characters’ own bad judgment. If the director – an Oscar winner for best foreign film a couple of years back – can pull this off, Jennifer Lawrence may be about to establish herself as a very serious young actress indeed, and Ron Rash is about to make some good money and finally earn national recognition as the film drives Serena back onto the bestseller lists. Considering how long he’s worked for it without compromising his style or his principles, I’d say it’s well earned. It’s always nice when it happens to one of the good guys, isn’t it?

Which brings me to The Cove, Rash’s fifth and latest novel, now out in hardcover from Ecco. The Cove, like the rest of Rash’s body of work, is set in the Appalachian Carolinas, and longtime readers of his work will recognize the darkly romantic feel of Rash’s mountains immediately. His Appalachia is a superstitious place, haunted by sorrow and tragedy, of hard lives lived, of poverty and struggle and war. In The World Made Straight he showed us how the shadow of the Civil War still falls on the people of the region more than a century later; in The Cove he returns to the theme in a new way, showing us how those old passions transformed into a hard and unforgiving patriotism, the kind of loyalty to country that drives Appalachia to give up its sons to fight whenever the nation goes to war abroad. Set in the First World War, The Cove was inspired by the real-life internment of German nationals in a camp in the North Carolina mountains in Hot Springs near the town of Mars Hill. Walter, a flutist with an orchestra taken from a ship harbored in New York and held in the camp, escapes into the hills with his instrument. a few clothes and sixty dollars in cash. He finds his way to the cove, a shadowed, forbidding spot hidden deep in the mountains, and there is found shivering and exposure-sickened by Laurel Shelton, a member of an outcast family living there, believed to be the descendant of a family tainted by witchcraft. On her otherwise pretty face is a port-wine stain, for many a physical manifestation of a corruption of the soul, and whenever she and her brother go into town they are greeted with snubs and suspicion, unwelcome and unloved. Among his belongings, Laurel finds a note introducing him as Walter Smith, a mute since childhood, stating his wish to buy a train ticket to New York, and a medallion with an unfamiliar word: Vaterland. Not knowing he is a German, she and her brother Hank nurse the stranger back to health, and there a doomed romance between her and Walter blossoms. Meanwhile, as war fever grips the region, Chauncey Feith, a local patriot driving the war effort begins to look for evidence of disloyalty among his neighbors. As the truth about Walter becomes clearer to Laurel and Hank, they are faced with a choice whose consequences may be disastrous for them all whichever way they turn.

The Cove is a straightforward, tragic love story, plain-spoken but well told. Rash has no need for a complicated, artificially twisting plot to keep the reader entertained, nor does he feel compelled to bury his themes under layers of contrived sophistication. Instead, he presents it all unadorned, right there on the surface, but with a resonating depth of emotion and meaning that is intended to be felt on the first reading rather than teased out through careful examination. The Cove may not be the literary achievement that Serena was, but it’s no sin not to top yourself every time, and I don’t think he set out to do so. It’s possible that The Cove is intended as a more commercial kind of book, more accessible and easier to grasp than either Serena or his other past novels, but it’s just as likely that Rash just doesn’t feel the need to make each of his books some grand, complex monument to the possibilities of the novel. The Cove is instead a good and entertaining story with a tender heart and a moral backbone, the kind of book people used to be unafraid to write. I’m glad someone still is.

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