For years we've monitored the state of lumberjack fiction. In this genre, hard-scrabble settings lend themselves to epic drama and rough-hewn characters. We all remember Tim Gautreaux's The Clearing, for instance, about a family-owned timber company in the fetid Louisiana swamps, and we've remarked loudly and often about the genius of David Adams Richard's The Friends of Meager Fortune, an unforgettable novel which also depicts a logging family, though this one situated in the frozen north of Canada.
There's a nice mix of toil and climate in Serena, the eagerly awaited new novel from South Carolina writer Ron Rash. And while the setting is the wild Carolinas of the Great Depression, the setting can't match the dynamic characters of this powerful drama, a marvelous addition to the timber canon.
The book contains what may be the best opening we've seen all year:
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 woman 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.
Pemberton is an ambitious young lumber baron who has arrived home with a new wife, the Serena of the title, a courageous and conniving woman whose mettle, resourcefulness and raging ambition makes Pemberton seem like an underachiever by comparison.
The confrontation on the train platform sets the tone for a rash of violence and retribution which the Pembertons employ as they sheer the Carolina forests in their unbridled quest for attainment and power. Standing in their way will be government officials aiming to annex land for the national parks, squirrelly business partners, two-timing employees, righteous lawmen and anyone else fool enough to contradict their dominance.
And rest assured, the lady and her unborn child waiting at the station will play a pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Pembertons in an Appalachian tragedy that echoes Macbeth. Even the lumberjack chorus, a team of backwoods philosophers and a mad preacher, reminds one of the three witches who prophesy doom for the tragic hero.
This story of unfettered ambition is especially meaningful in light of the current Wall Street fiascoes, where corporate greed becomes a kind of professional virtue, and personal wealth of the few trumps the well-being of everyone else. It's a timeless malady, as much a part of our country's history as patriotism and honor.
But this is not a political book — just our impressions in a politically volatile time. It's an impeccably crafted saga with rich characters and suspense. And while our readings of late have been plagued by questionable endings, kudos to Ron Rash for the harrowing conclusion, which strikes the perfect tragic note and will surely live on in memory.
It's been our observation that Rash, along with William Gay, is a favorite among fans of contemporary Southern literature, both at Turnrow and far afield. His novels and stories are alternately imbued with the poetic heft of the great regional classics while as thrilling and shocking as any contemporary work. We're proud to host him at Turnrow on Friday, November 8.