Yelling Timber before Ke$ha – “Serena” by Ron Rash

January 24, 2014 at 9:21 pm Leave a comment

books“Serena” by Ron Rash, Published in 2008

This novel is stark storytelling but it has a weight to it that is hard to convey. Rash’s writing is excellent but truly rough and has a disconnect that can be disturbing.

George Pemberton owns a timber empire in North Carolina.  Around the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Pemberton returns from a three-month trip to Boston.  He brings with him his new bride, Serena.  At the train station in North Carolina, Pemberton and Serena are met by not only his business partners but also a very pregnant 16 year old Rachel and her father, who is planning on making Pemberton take care of his daughter and Pemberton’s unborn child. Pemberton’s bride hands Pemberton a knife and tells him to take care of it.  This scene ends with Pemberton gutting Rachel’s father and Serena telling Rachel that going forward they would have nothing to do with her or her unborn child. And thus the stage is set for the cold, calculating greed that is the Pembertons’ marriage.

Pemberton brings Serena to his timber camp where she quickly settles into the spartan environment.  In fact, it seems to fit her too perfectly.  She knows everything about timber, she is able to ride her white horse through the mountains seamlessly.  When too many workers are killed by rattlesnakes and work is threatened to slow she orders a hawk and trains it to kill the snakes.  She is a force.  She controls everything around her, including Pemberton.  But Serena can’t control her body and when she finds out that she cannot have a child, she is determined that Pemberton’s child with Rachel must be killed.  Apart from Rachel’s child, Pemberton and Serena are fighting the Rockefellers and other local aristocrats who are trying to get the timber land and convert into a park.  To Serena this type of action, that would interfere with her economic wellbeing, is worth killing for.

Rash brilliantly uses one of the lumber crews as a Greek chorus of sorts.  As the storyline progresses the men’s conversations, while felling trees, fill the reader in on anything that might have been missed. The men also serve as the moral compass of the story. Quite frankly, with characters like Pemberton and Serena you need a moral compass.

And the story is compelling but perhaps even more interesting is the awfulness that was the timber industry in the 1930s. It was dangerous and deadly.  Men were maimed daily and many died but new workers kept coming,  because it was the American Depression and they needed to feed their families.  Rash uses the character of Serena to illustrate the simplicity of the Depression, it was truly a win or lose proposition – life or death. And to Serena it is that simple.  She will kill, maim, belittle, blackmail, or chop down everything of beauty if that is what it takes to be successful.  She is a specimen. And through her, Rash has found the perfect way to quite clearly, though skillfully, say that the economy is truly a b*tch.

Other reviews to check it out:

From The Schleicher Spin

From Reading Good Books

From Book Urchin


Entry filed under: January 2014 reads. Tags: , , .

Water, water everywhere – “We are Water” and “Beach Music” Cassoulet for the mind – “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” by Sebestian Faulks

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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