My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Many words could be used to describe the appeal of Ron Rash’s Serena – gothic, dramatic, tragic, stark, fierce – but none can really encompass the sheer breadth and depth of this extraordinary novel. Serena can be compared to both a Greek tragedy and an Elizabethan drama.
The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston (where they met) to Waynesville in the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to these mountains – but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together they ruthlessly kill or overcome all who fall out of favor with them. But their charmed marriage is put to the test when Serena loses a child in childbirth and learns that she will never bear another. Then George’s illegitimate son becomes a target as Serena sets out to destroy what she cannot have for herself. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to disintegrate as the story moves toward its riveting conclusion.
Mythic in status, Serena dominates the novel from the first shocking chapter. A Lady Macbeth of her time, Serena is breathtaking in her egotism and desire for power. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is allowed to stand in the way of her dreams and desires. Men are bewitched by her beauty and charm; those who aren’t tend to suffer “accidents” or “disappear.” The image of Serena on her white horse like Pegasus, towering above the men standing around her in the timber camp is goddess-like in its depiction. Whether Serena is perceived as a modern woman trying to carve a niche for herself in a man’s world or a malevolent being set on the destruction of everyone and everything that stands in her path, the reader is made aware of her power and strength through Rash’s wonderful use of symbolism and description.
But the novel isn’t just about Serena and her clashes with man; it is also about her clashes with nature. Serena subverts nature for her own gain. When there is a problem with rattlesnakes in the camp, which is slowing down work, Serena trains an eagle to hunt the snakes. Of course, once the snakes are gone there is nothing to eat the rats and they start to multiply and cause their own problems.
And the timber camp impacts on more than just the local wildlife. The Pemberton’s desire to create a timber empire is in direct opposition to the newly formed National Park movement; what the Pembertons see as prime logging land has been earmarked by the committee for the Smoky Mountains National Park. The struggle between the early environmentalists and the timber faction described in the novel is a fascinating subplot. Rash describes how the logging has devastated the landscape and has changed the local eco-system, but he also reminds the reader of the rural poverty in the mountains during the Depression and how much the locals relied on the timber camp for work. Without work they will starve and so will their families.
Rash’s evocative writing and lush language combines local folklore and dialect with unforgettable characters to create an unforgettable novel that you’ll want to pass along to your friends.
Ron Rash is the author of three prizewinning novels—One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight—three collections of poems, and three collections of short fiction. Serena, named Best Novel of the Year by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and his most recent story collection, Chemistry and Other Stories, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice a recipient of the O. Henry Prize, Rash teaches at Western Carolina University.