“Just remember you were warned,” said his Boston hostess before she introduced Pemberton to Serena. Despite her words, he was instantly smitten. Serena was the strongest woman he had ever known, and she was eager to join him in western North Carolina, leaving the sophistication of Boston society for the rugged life of a mountain logging operation.
Her father had been a lumber baron in Colorado, so Serena had grown up on horseback and could handle everything to do with the business as well as any grizzled old hand in the camp. She trained an eagle to take care of the snake problem, and the men grew accustomed to seeing her upright form riding the mountainside with the huge bird perched on her arm. When Pemberton was confronted by the father of a young woman who was carrying his child, he dispatched him neatly with a knife blade quite openly on the train platform. Serena approved, and from that point, the pair of them continued to remove any obstacles that got in the way of their plan to denude the entire mountainside, then the entire state, and eventually, the entire country of Brazil.
I recently decided to get better acquainted with contemporary Southern—and especially North Carolina—authors, since William, Flannery, Eudora, Walker and I are old friends. Ron Rash is new to me, even though he is a well-known resident of our state. The first two pages of this novel are brutal, and both Pemberton and Serena are repugnant. Since I am a character-driven reader, it was tough to get past this shocking opening scene. Also, as a rural resident, I am happily surrounded by green woodlands, so when the protagonists view a beautiful poplar as just so many board feet, it is nauseating, just as the author intended. However, there are some heroes to be found, and the pace of the plot and the reader’s increasing desperation to find someone to stop this woman keep the pages turning. There is certainly not a moment of boredom, and last third of the book runs at breakneck speed. Even the secondary characters are often compelling and sometimes reminded me of the cast of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Rash’s use of one logging crew as a sort of Appalachian Greek chorus provided a bit of comic relief.
As a North Carolinian, it was mind-bending to read about the Biltmore House as an actual residence, not the museum that we know today. I had no idea that logging companies were racing to clear-cut our beautiful Smoky Mountains before the federal government could establish national forests. Conservation and unchecked greed are the larger themes here, but readers will never forget Serena, one of the most evil women ever to dwell on the printed page. A contemporary classic.
Disclaimer: I read a colleague’s (signed!) copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.