Ron Rash has a long list of fiction and poetry to his credit but this is the first that I've read and that because it was picked by our book group and discussed last Saturday. I have to say that not only did everyone love it but I felt positively deprived that I hadn't read him before this. This is a beautiful book - beautiful in its style and beautiful in its narrative. It is very clear that Rash is a poet as at times the book reads like an epic poem.
The story is essentially about outsiders and by setting it almost at the end of the First World War, in the Appalachian mountains in an isolated community full of lore, hidebound traditions and superstition, it in some ways calls to mind Claudel's Brodeck's Report. Rash lives in the Appalachians and his love of the area is apparent in his poetic descriptions of the flora and fauna so delightfully described by one of his main characters, Laurel. Laurel is a young woman who, with her brother, Hank, is struggling to make a living on a farm left to them by their parents in a 'cove' which essentially is a small narrow valley heavily overshadowed by a high cliff. Laurel, born with a port wine stain on her face, is regarded as a witch in the local community, shunned and mocked and, at times, feared. Hank who has recently returned from the war minus a hand is endeavouring to restore the farm to a condition where it will provide a living for Laurel as he himself wishes to marry and leave the cove.
At the beginning of the narrative, Laurel is transfixed by the music of a flute coming through the trees which initially she mistakes for a bird. The musician, who later she rescues and brings to the house after he is attacked by wasps, apparently cannot speak, read or write but carries a note which identifies him as Walter Smith. Restored to health, Walter stays on in the farm helping Hank with the heavier chores and falling in love with Laurel.
Meanwhile, in the town, anti German feeling is being whipped up by a cowardly, mean spirited local recruiter, Chauncey Feith who struts around in complete uniform far from the horrors of the Front. He takes his venom out on an elderly German language professor at a local college and takes pleasure in attempting to purge the library of all 'German' literature. As one reviewer has pointed out, Rash is describing here the state of fear created repeatedly by men like Chauncey over the decades - not only the war mania in 1914, but the suspicion of Japanese-Americans in 1941,and more recently the fear of any Muslim. It is the fear of outsiders. And as the narrative gently progresses, it becomes clear that sooner or later the worlds of Chauncey Feith and Laurel are going to collide.
If the story appears to have an almost oneiric quality - the beautiful young girl, the enigmatic stranger, the hardworking one-handed brother and the irredeemable villain - the ending obviates such ideas with its stark and elegant tragic simplicity.
I highly recommend this book and personally I shall now search out his previous writings.