11 Mar 2011

Ron Rash and Serena: the pioneering myth

Several people have recently encouraged me to read something by the American author (of poetry, short stories and novels) Ron Rash. I have just finished his novel entitled Serena and I can now pass on the encouragements with bells added.

Serena (which is the first name of the main female character in Rash's book) has something of the inexorably tragic and epic form that one finds in Cormac McCarthy, or in Ken Kesey's early novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, published in 1964, and made into a film by Paul Newman in 1970, in which Newman himself played the hero, Hank Stamper. Indeed the motto of the Stamper family in Kesey's book, which was "Never give an inch", could well be that of the Pemberton couple who are at the ruthless, tragic centre of Rash's novel published in 2008. And both families are involved in the logging business, albeit at different periods, in different places (Kesey's book was situated in Oregon, whereas Rash's lies in the Appalachians, on the North Carolina/Tennessee border) and at very different levels in financial terms. And they, or their characters, share something of the same blind, head-first "pioneering" spirit that has been raised to mythological status in the USA, usually to the detriment of any human sentiment or respect for the world around. I also found myself thinking of Cimino's magnificent film, Heaven's Gate.

I will not reveal any other aspects of the story, which holds you in its claws as firmly as the eagle that Serena uses to hunt rattlesnakes. I found it a strange irony that, during the time when I was reading this book, there was one of these events called "Woman's day" occuring (at least here in France). And here I was reading about a woman who behaves much like a man and who is far stronger and more redoutable than her male partner. I do hope that this is not the future for women, even if we obviously hope that they have equal rights, wages and everything else in all countries!

Ron Rash

Apart from the story and its Greek tragedy-like unfurling, the most impressive thing about Rash's writing, as shown in Serena, is his descriptive ability, including his feel for nature and the rythm of words. He mixes the terse and the eloquent with a fine sense of balance. His writing can be physical, very much rooted in the Appalachians where he lives, but with a universal scope.

"Soon the trees fell away and the men entered an old pasture. Locust fence posts still stood, draping brown tendrils of barbed wire. Milking traces were faint but visible, indenting the slantland like the wide steps of some Aztec ruin. Though wisps of fog held fast to the coves and valleys, sunlight leaned into the pasture. The air was bracing, more reminiscent of fall than spring."

But Serena is a hard story, and one that does not lose itself in descriptions of nature which is, at least here, sacrificed to the ambition of men. I will read more of Ron Rash's work.

Please read on...


  1. I am surprised, but totally agree with your comparing Serena (which I am currently reading and quite taken with), to Ken Kesey's book, which I have loved for some time. Amazing! That book, and the movie (didn't agree with the title change to the motto though), have stayed with me. I lived in Oregon at the time of filming and remember the tales of lively beer swilling by Mr. Newman, et al. in the small Oregon Coast town. How fun would that have been?! Thanks for your astute commentary - much appreciated.

  2. One of the interesting and gratifying things I have found about writing this blog is that time becomes flexible and one moves away from the merely instantaneous and fast, totally caught up with day-to-day events to the point that one sometimes loses perspective.
    Here is a good example: I wrote this article 15 months ago and you respond to it now. Thank you for writing and I am glad that you find an echo with your own experience. You are also quite right about the title change. These are often made for movies and they are rarely an improvement on the original. You should see what heppens when they are then translated for the French versions of films that I see over here!
    I will be travelling through Oregon this summer and hope to feel myself taken back to the atmosphere that Kesey set so well. Maybe I'll even meet the ghost of Hank Stamper?