— In the Valley, by Ron Rash (Doubleday, 2020)
Ron Rash (1953) started out as a poet and short story writer in the ‘90s before he published his first novel, One Foot in Eden (2002) and the novel that catapulted him to national literary prominence, Serena (2008), later adapted into film. In his newest work, In the Valley, Rash returns to the short story form as well as to the characters of Serena in the novella that gives name to this collection.
Exhibiting the linguistic grace of Rash’s poetry and his ability to capture both a world –typically, southern Appalachia– and a mental landscape in a few lines, these stories immerse the reader in vivid settings. In “Last Bridge Burned,” a lonely gas station attendant by the name of Carlyle is reminded of his own troubled past when he helps an intoxicated woman get back on her feet after she shows up at midnight, barefoot and moneyless. As he reminisces: “One day you’ll learn trouble finds a fellow easy enough without inviting it in. Carlyle was sixteen when his exasperated father told him that. By the time he’d finally heeded the advice, Carlyle had lost three jobs and two wives.”
In “L’homme Blessé,” a recently widowed college teacher helps a former student make sense of the life of her father, a World War Two veteran who painted the walls of his house with reproductions of prehistoric art he saw in a cave in liberated France. In “Sad Man in the Sky,” a man who has just been released from prison persuades a helicopter pilot to fly over his stepchildren’s home in order to deliver presents from the sky and sidestep the restraining order that keeps him apart from his former family.
From the 19th century to contemporary Appalachia, Rash’s stories traverse ages with the same ease as they humanize characters from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, from the wounded, stubborn male who struggles with a life stacked against him to the strong-willed woman who makes her way amid a landscape of destitution.
The Myth of Serena Pemberton
The novella “In the Valley” takes us back to the Depression-era, North Carolina logging camps of Rash’s epic Serena. The novel, which told the story of lumber baroness Serena Pemberton, often depicted its main character as an almost mythical being, inscrutable in her capacity for cruelty toward both men and the mountain landscape. That same impenetrable and remote malignancy is displayed in this sequel as Serena roams the campgrounds on a white stallion and an eagle perched on her arm. Coming across as an Appalachian Countess Báthory, Serena is obsessed with razing a forest in record time even if it is at the expense of the lives of countless loggers and an army of prison laborers. In his prose, Rash juxtaposes brutality and poetry: “From the direction of the graveyard, human shapes emerged, but they did not walk like men. They approached, arms limp, gaits hesitant, like specters summoned from the deepest of sleeps. Fog unraveled around them like shroud cloth as they made their torpid progress across the valley floor.”
Ron Rash has carved out a niche of his own among the country’s best contemporary writers. This short story collection shows him at the top of his form.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.By Gonzalo Baeza