Books: The music of suffering

Monday, May 14, 2012 at 11:04am
By Ed Tarkington Chapter16.org
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Ron Rash (Mark Haskett)

In his new novel, The Cove, Ron Rash tells the story of Laurel Shelton, a woman cursed by bad luck and local superstition. Laurel dwells alone and ostracized in the gloomy Appalachian canyon that gives this novel its title. One lonely morning while washing laundry, Laurel hears the faint sound of magnificent music—a solitary flute meandering through the still air of the wilderness. The discovery of the music’s source initiates an unlikely love story that is both charmed and doomed. The Cove is a spare, lyrical novel that juxtaposes the legendarily haunted and severe environs of the Blue Ridge Mountains with the simmering anxiety of the Great War.

In The Cove, Rash returns to the setting of his breakthrough novel, Serena, and this narrative, too, revolves around a formidable woman. Laurel has much more in common with the ill-fated heroines of Appalachian murder ballads than with Serena Pemberton, however. Because of a conspicuous birthmark, Laurel has since childhood been labeled a witch, driven out of school and into isolation by the superstition and paranoia of mountain folk. “At school, her classmates echoed what their parents believed — that her father’s heart gave out after rocking Laurel with her birthmark touching his chest, that her mother’s poisoned limb had turned the color of Laurel’s stained skin, that the cove itself had marked Laurel as its own,” Rash writes. Indeed, the cove is thought to be cursed, making it the only place where she is safe from bigotry and harassment.

Laurel’s only companion is her brother Hank, who has lost an arm to a German sniper during World War I and thus earned a modest reprieve from persecution by the locals. Hank and Laurel have no living family and, practically speaking, no friends other than their nearest neighbor, Slidell. But Hank longs to marry and leave the cove behind, so the arrival of Walter, the mysteriously mute flute player, seems at first like a rare and unexpected stroke of luck for both the Sheltons. Desperate for love and desperately afraid of a future in complete isolation, Laurel falls quickly for Walter, whose tender nature and brilliant musicianship make him seem almost beatific. For a brief moment, it almost seems the two could live happily ever after.

Those familiar with Rash’s earlier work know better. In recent years, Rash has earned a solid reputation as an heir to John Steinbeck for his archetypal themes and his interest in social justice, and to Cormac McCarthy in his elegant rendering of the harsh, violent nature of both the wilderness and humanity. A highly regarded poet as well as a fiction writer, Rash eloquently draws the mountain landscape and the cultural milieu of Appalachia as metaphors for more recent circumstances.

In The Cove, the crisis results from the truth behind Walter’s arrival and the vainglorious ambitions of Chauncey Feith, a banker’s son and local Army recruiter whose insecurities incite him to demagoguery. Given the remoteness of the conflict from the lives and livelihoods of the local populace, Feith is deeply resented by those whose sons he sends off to war. Wounded veterans like Hank Shelton treat Feith with naked scorn. As a result, Feith is driven to prove his worth by stoking fears of the so-called “Huns.” Most contemptibly, he heaps suspicion on a professor of German at the local college for having befriended a group of German naval officers being held in genteel captivity at a resort in nearby Boiling Springs after their ship was stranded in New York Harbor at the outbreak of the war.

Feith represents the knee-jerk, xenophobic stereotyping of “the enemy” so typical of our own time, when racist agitators inflame persecution and, too often, violence against those who come from a different culture or practice a different religion. The Cove’s inevitably tragic conclusion makes clear the human casualties of reckless ignorance and jingoism.

Ron Rash is rarely coy with his characters or his themes. There’s little ambiguity in The Cove’s plot or characterization. These are simple folks, with straightforward intentions and desires. Nevertheless, Rash manages to keep the characters from flattening out through his delicate execution of a shifting point of view, in which each of the three main characters — Laurel, Walter and Feith — reveal the depth of their feelings and the underlying motivations behind their relatively unsurprising actions. Rash ably manages the intermingling of these elements with his trademark veneration of the North Carolina mountains, Laurel and Walter’s love story, and the suspenseful question of who Walter really is and what will become of him.

Rash expresses his reverence for the cultural history of his native Appalachia most strongly in the essential traditionalism of his fiction. There are no tricks or surprises here — just a heartbreaking love story written in virtuosic language. The Cove is, in a sense, like a well-made song delivered by an expert hand, not unlike the one Laurel pursues as she wanders through the woods to discover Walter. “This song wasn’t about one lost love or one dead child or parent,” Rash writes. “It was as if the music was about every loss that had ever been.”

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