Down in the valley
North Carolina author Ron Rash is one of those authors that a lot of serious readers may easily overlook. His works are reviewed in mainstream publications like The New Yorker, USA Today and Entertainment Weekly; Amazon routinely places his novels on their Best of lists, and many of his titles come with prize medallions on the cover, but with the exception of his 2008 bestseller Serena, he hasn’t become the household name that other contemporary heavy hitters such as Richard Russo or Pat Conroy might receive. Often termed a regional writer since most of his stories are set in the Blue Ridge Mountains near his home, Rash creates finely crafted tales that weave a strong sense of time and place with characterizations that stick with the reader long after the book concludes.
His latest novel, The Cove, is no exception. Set in a deep valley where little sunlight penetrates, siblings Laurel and Hank Shelton are trying to overcome the unrelenting bad luck that has plagued their family. Sure, Hank survived the killing fields of World War I, but the loss of his hand and Laurel’s birthmark, taken by neighbors as a sign of witchcraft, means that the town folk of nearby Mars Hill regard them both as irreparably cursed and unmercifully shun Laurel. A bright spot of hope arrives when Walter, a mute man whose flute-playing entrances Laurel. Gradually he finds his way into the cove, and eventually into Laurel’s heart, granting her a happiness that she had never known. But it is the final days of World War I, and prejudice in the guise of patriotism put everything Hank, Laurel and Walter have worked for at risk.
Building on a little-known episode in World War I history, Rash creates a palpable sense of the tension between the townspeople and the Sheltons. In his depiction of Chauncey Feith, the local recruiting officer, Rash includes seemingly trivial but telling details that reveal how easily fear can be disguised behind a façade of ambition, with devastating results. The conclusion, when it comes, it is quick, brutal and utterly complete. When I finished reading The Cove, I had to take a moment or two to return to real life. The dark beauty of this story is one that stays in the mind long after the final page.