by Ron Rash; Ecco, 2012; 255 pages, $26.99
Ron Rash, whose relentlessly ferocious novel “Serena” cemented his reputation as one of our best American writers, returns to the Appalachia he has embraced in so many of his works, chronicling another doomed love. It is the turn of the last century in “The Cove,” and World War I is winding down, or so the papers say. And that’s a good thing, for the war touches even the small cove in North Carolina that is the home of another of Rash’s remarkably rendered heroines.
“They’s folks who won’t set foot in this cove. They think nothing good can happen here.” So says Laurel Shelton. In fact, the folks of Mars Hill believe her to be a witch, an outcast suited to the dark cove where it seems no light ever enters. Laurel has lost her father and mother to that cove, and now she takes care of her brother, Hank, newly returned from and missing an arm because of the war.
Laurel has spent all of her life a reflection of what people imagine her to be. She rarely leaves the cove, especially since townsfolk see her large blue birthmark as certain evidence she is the witch she is accused of being. So Laurel lives her nearly solitary existence comforted only by the trilling of the birds who invade the cove, especially the vividly colored, exotic Carolina parakeets.
But one day Laurel realizes the music she hears is something other than that of her winged companions. It is a stranger’s burnished silver flute. She finds that stranger viciously stung by yellow jackets, and she nurses him back to health. He is Walter, who speaks not a word and is headed to New York, at least according to a note he is carrying.
The cove accepts Walter — as does Hank — and a relationship develops between Walter and Laurel, one that both outcasts easily welcome — for the world of Ron Rash is a severe, lonely one and connections must be embraced, not ignored. Yet that love, even protected by the cove, may not be enough to shield Walter and Laurel from the forces of ignorance and violence the Great War has engendered, even in Mars Hill.
Chauncey Feith, a young local Army recruiter who has managed not to see combat, but who fancies himself a patriot nonetheless, is determined to wipe out the enemy wherever he can invent them. He is ready to play upon the apprehensions and resentments of the community, discovering that fear of “the Huns” is even greater than fear of the cove. He will forever change the innocent lives around him.
“The Cove” is from a writer at the height of his powers. Ron Rash knows that shadows are waiting to eclipse our lives. He, like Laurel has done, tries to conjure places for respite, for light, but even his honest, affecting language isn’t enough to forge a permanent crack in the rock of his world.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.