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The Murderess of Smoky Mountain
A gothic tale about lumber and a woman who pushes her husband too far.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 12, 2008

SERENA

By Ron Rash

Ecco. 371 pp. $24.95

Serena, the Lady Macbeth of Ron Rash's stirring new novel, wouldn't fret about getting out the damned spot. She wouldn't even wash her hands; she'd just lick it off. I couldn't take my eyes off this villainess, and any character who does ends up dead. Alluring and repellant, she's the engine in a gothic tale of personal mayhem and environmental destruction set in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression.

We meet her as the new bride of a timber baron arriving to survey 34,000 acres of virgin land that she and her husband, Pemberton, hope to strip as quickly as possible. The other investors don't bring their wives into the mountains like this, but Serena is no ordinary wife. At the start of the novel, the newlyweds are intercepted at the train station by the father of a pregnant 16-year-old girl. Pemberton can't even remember her name, but he doesn't doubt she's carrying his baby; Serena is unfazed. "You're a lucky man," she tells the girl's father, who's seething with drunken rage. "You'll not find a better sire to breed her with." Then she turns to the girl: "But that's the only one you'll have of his. I'm here now."

Yikes, is she ever. Wearing her leather jodhpurs and black boots, she strides through the story that follows with frightening self-confidence. She speaks with unquestioned authority to Pemberton's employees, rough-hewn men who've lived in these isolated hills for generations. The orphaned daughter of a wealthy timber man in Colorado, she immediately impresses even the most skeptical lumberjacks with her shrewd knowledge of the business. She can calculate board feet just by glancing at a towering tree, and though she attended finishing school in New England, she prefers the Spartan accommodations of her husband's Appalachian camp. "Money freed to buy more timber tracts," she reassures him. Drill, baby, drill!

Rash portrays them as the perfect power couple, not a match made in heaven, perhaps, but someplace much lower. "Their meeting wasn't mere good fortune," Serena insists, "but inevitability." A strapping, commanding man of 27, Pemberton is thrilled to have found a woman so in tune with his spirit, even if she sometimes pushes him toward actions more deadly than prudent. Nothing heats up their bed more than rubbing out a too-cautious investor or a potential opponent. Holding Serena in his arms, feeling her "severe keenness," he's filled with "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility."

Serena is a blazing expansion of a short story in Rash's 2007 collection, Chemistry. Among other things, the longer form gives Rash room to set the ambitions of this rapacious couple against a seminal moment in the environmental movement. Even as Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding every mountain in Appalachia, the secretary of the interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, is aggressively buying up and seizing property for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Owners like Pemberton could make a fortune by raping the land before they lost or sold it to the government. Rash gracefully folds this history into his fictional drama and includes several other real-life figures, such as the nature writer Horace Kephart.

The political battle that rumbles in the background of the novel is all too sadly reminiscent of the one we're still fighting over vast tracts of untouched land. Rash, who teaches Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, constantly reminds us of what's at stake: "As the crews moved forward," he writes, "they left behind an ever-widening wasteland of stumps and slash, brown clogged creeks awash with dead trout. . . . The valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal."

But Rash's description of the laborers is filled with awe for the hellish conditions they endure, working six 11-hour shifts a week, in all weather. When winter arrives, frostbite is a fair trade for snakebites. In startling, brief scenes, we see men sliced, impaled, drowned and crushed. "Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," he writes, "because once the cutting began a man had to watch for axe blades glancing off trees and saw teeth grabbing a knee and the tongs on the cable swinging free or the cable snapping. . . . If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you'd gain an extra worker every month." As the Depression grinds on, though, there are always cheap, willing replacements.

In addition to writing short stories, Rash is also a fine poet, and he brings a poet's concision and elliptical tendencies to this novel. As a result, these scenes and conversations constantly suggest more than they show, a technique that renders them alluring, sometimes erotic, often frightening. And his restraint is a necessity to keep this gothic tale from slipping into campiness. That's a real danger when you've got a beautiful murderess striding around the forest with a pet eagle on her wrist and a one-armed goon at her side. Frankly, it's sometimes difficult to catch the author's tone in these passages; the book seems deadly serious, but there are moments -- the bizarre battle between Serena's eagle and a komodo dragon, for instance -- when one suspects that Rash is rolling his eyes, too. But this is the challenge of the gothic novel: managing the accretion of excesses in a way that doesn't break the spell. The blind hag who delivers prophesies to the lumbermen, the insane preacher who warns of impending doom, even the portentous eclipse of the moon -- all these details rise up just right. The only weakness may be Serena herself; as her ambitions begin to outpace her husband's, I couldn't help feeling that she was shrinking toward a caricature of evil.

But by then, it's too hypnotic to break away from. Innocent people are in peril, and calamity seems as unstoppable as the millions of board feet Pemberton's men send surging down the river. And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I've read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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