In Depression-era North Carolina, a timber baron marries Serena and brings her to the lumber camps to live. Her ambition outmatches his and she drives him to succeed, prosper, and expand at any cost.
Wow. What a character Ron Rash has created in Serena. I detested her, but she is going to stick with me the way Lady MacBeth and Medea have. I had to admire her strength and ambition, but she was ruthless and proud of it. She seemed to see those weaker than her as prey, and she saw almost everyone as being weaker than her. There's a kind of mythology that springs up around her in the camp. She thinks of ingenious solutions to problems, such as rattlesnake bites among the loggers. She really doesn't care when loggers die though. It's the Depression after all, and for every one worker that dies or is disfigured, there are innumerable men waiting to take his place. I would have liked an explanation as to why she was the way she was. She grew up in the camps, and there's a dark past that's hinted at but never explained. Was she just born heartless or did something or someone shape her to be that way?
This book takes place practically in my backyard, and I had heard that these mountains were devastated back in the day. It's one thing to just kind of know that, and it's another to live it for two years inside a book. This one fictional camp ended in the clear-cutting of 34,000 acres. I can't even wrap my mind around that much land. I had to go Google some pictures. Look at these.
Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississipi
Mount Mitchell in 1923
Found on The Forest History Society website
I don't understand how people look at a landscape and see not beauty, but dollar signs at any human and/or environmental cost. Ron Rash didn't hit me over the head with the environmental stuff, but there is sort of a Greek chorus of workers who occasionally look around and talk about how all the animals have left and how all the cool, clear mountain streams are now muddy and empty of fish because of run-off from the denuded slopes. There's a whole sub-plot about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was infuriated by the roadblocks these selfish, wealthy landowners threw up in the path to creating the park. I can understand a farmer not wanting to give up the land that has been in his family for generations. It makes me angry when people who are destroying the land stand in the way of those who are trying to preserve it. I'll get off my soapbox now.
This is not the book to pick up if you're looking for a light read. But for a fascinating look into a disturbing mind and a book where the landscape is practically a character, go ahead and read it. I do recommend it. Book clubs should find a lot to talk about in this one.
I went to a book signing when Ron Rash's new short story collection, Burning Bright, came out a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I didn't take notes. He read the title story to us, and my mother, grandmother, and I chewed that one over for a while in the car on the way home. That would be another good choice for book groups. He was very nice, and I loved listening to him read. His accent is like mine, so I grew up listening to stories being told in those familiar cadences and tones. When we went up to get my grandmother's book signed, she told him how her parents had worked in a lumber camp, and she was thrilled to find out that he had been in that area doing research on Serena. Ron Rash is another author I would recommend seeing.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Angelina Jolie and Darren Aronofsky are "in discussions to develop a big-screen adaptation of" Serena with Jolie in the title role. As I read this, I was talking about what a screwed-up relationship Serena and Pemberton had. "Kind of like Angelina and Billy Bob where they wore each other's underwear and had vial's of each other's blood around their necks." How ironic that Angie's the one shopping the movie around. She should be fantastic.
Have you read any of his work? What did you think?