Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Cove

by Ron Rash
Ecco     2012
255 pages     Fiction

Ron Rash, poet, novelist, and professor, says that he doesn't begin his books with an outline or a plot. He begins with an image and then "I just see where the image will take me." In The Cove, the image has taken him to a very dark place in backwoods North Carolina, a cove so mysterious that the people in the neighboring village of Mars Hill are afraid to go near the place. 

With both of their parents dead, Laurel and her brother Hank are trying to piece together a farm on the land they own in the area of the cove. Hank has just returned from the war in Germany (World War I, that is) having lost his hand in battle. Hank is getting on with his life; he has plans to be married, although his fiancé is superfluous to the plot and we don't get to know her.  Laurel has the disadvantage of a large birthmark which makes her a castoff in the village because people think that she may be a witch. She is stuck in the cove, lonely and disillusioned. She is so lonely that she "remembered how once she'd leaned close just to see her breath condense on the mirror's glass." One day while washing clothes in the stream, she hears a beautiful flute playing and discovers a drifter living in the woods. After he is stung by bees, Laurel brings him back to the house to heal. She discovers that he is a mute named Walter. Although he cannot communicate with more than just hand motions and head nods, it is apparent that there is more to Walter than meets the eye. Hank is struggling to do the farm work because of his lost hand, so they convince Walter to stay for a few days to help with the farm work. 

This is one part of the plot. The other part of the plot concerns the effect the war is having on the people of this small Carolina village, far from the action of the war. Like Hank, several of their sons have gone off to war; some haven't returned, and others are damaged by the war. The local recruiter is Sgt. Chauncey Feith, the deeply insecure son of the local banker, who prides himself on keeping the community attuned to the war and its young men enlisting. The community is deeply afraid of "the Huns" and their paranoia is fed by Feith. I was reminded of the short novel, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, which my book club read last year. Both deal with the effects of war on a small community. In The Moon is Down, the community is in Norway. 

The plot, of course, leads to tragedy, but not until Walter's true identity is revealed, and he and Laurel fall in love—Laurel with the idea that Walter will help her escape the torment of her life in the cove. The reviewer in the USA Today calls it a tragedy "with a self-conscious Shakespearean structure and economy." Rash says that he considers The Cove to be a "very dark fairy tale." To that point, as
Walter wanders in the North Carolina woods "The trees thickened and the woods became as forlorn as those in a sinister fairy tale, a place where the guards claimed lions and bears and wolves roamed. All manner of poisonous serpents and plants thrived here and no step was safe. Immense watery caverns lay just beneath seemingly firm ground. They could give way and a man fall a hundred feet and then into water so utterly dark that the trout living in it were sightless." It's no wonder the townsfolk thought the Cove was haunted.

Beyond the plot, the book is a deeply moving study of a time and place in American life that is gone. Much of the language Rash uses evokes that time and place. This was my first book by Ron Rash. Others include Serena and Nothing Gold Can Stay and The World Made Straight. I am grateful to my friend, Patricia, for introducing me to Rash. I will enjoy reading his other books. One reviewer reminded his readers about a similar author, Paul Harding, whose book Enon I read last year. I loved it as well.

This is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended in 1918. My grandma's brother, Harry, was a World War I veteran. He was always a curiosity to my siblings and me, because he hardly ever spoke, watched wrestling all day on television, and put sugar on his tomatoes. In retrospect, I think that he was psychologically damaged by the war and never was able to live a productive life in the years after the war. He moved in with my grandma in his later years, and died shortly after his 100th birthday. Uncle Harry was one of the mysterious people that populated our childhood.

The review in the USA Today.
An interview with Ron Rash in the Daily Beast.

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