“Serena” by Ron Rash: Book Review (soon to be released as a film)

A few years back I read this novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the review I wrote at the time.

I also just learned that “Serena” has been made into a film, directed by Oscar-winner Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, with Bradley Cooper as George Pemberton. I thought it would make a compelling film – and I hope the film is as good as the book, although I suspect it will be “prettied up” a bit. I understand it will première at the BFI London Film Festival on October 24, but strangely there appears to be no U.S. release date.

By the way, there are no spoilers in this review! 

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the upcoming film of "Serena" directed by Susanne Bier.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the upcoming film of “Serena” directed by Susanne Bier.

This is what my father would call “a cracking good yarn.” Dear reader, you will be tossed around on a surging current of emotions: anger, jealousy, greed, revenge, self-pity, lust, fear…but very little love.

The heroine – or anti-heroine – of this book, Serena, is ill-named. There is absolutely nothing serene about her; unless you can equate serenity with the calm – a kind of cold certainty – which shines in her eyes when she has just made up her mind to… But no, I had better not say any more. You will soon find out for yourself what Serena is capable of.

It is 1929. George Pemberton steps off the train in Waynesville, North Carolina with his new bride Serena, and the action starts. The story begins with a murder – the kind of killing that is committed deliberately to show dominance, the kind that is done with a swagger. Thereafter, the Pembertons waste no time in establishing their authority among the “highlanders” who work for them. They immediately begin planning their assault on the land: thousands of acres of untouched forest to be logged, gold to be mined, railroads to be laid. It’s all theirs for the taking.

The relationship between Pemberton and his wife is so close that it is almost stifling. Serena sets the tone from the outset: “That’s what I want, everything a part of you also a part of me.” She calls their love-making “a kind of annihilation.” To Pemberton, she is not only desirable; he is in awe of her, unashamed in his admiration.

Serena rides out to oversee the work on a white Arab horse and dispatches her pet eagle to kill all the rattlesnakes in the valleys. The workers quickly develop a healthy respect for their mistress with her men’s clothing and calloused hands. After saving his life, Serena develops a close relationship with one man in particular. He becomes a devoted follower – and accomplice.

Quite apart from the juicy story line and the terrifying heroine (I will reveal no more of the plot, which thunders along at a steadily accelerating pace) there are things to savor along the way. The everyday detail of the period is absorbing: a hunting knife with an elk-bone handle; an apple wood fire burning, with a cane-back chair by the hearth; a Bible wrapped in oilcloth; rhubarb and blackberry jam, buttermilk and whiskey; burlap sacks, gray cotton stockings, red handkerchiefs, tripod cameras. The not-yet-touched areas of the southern landscape are richly described; Rachel, the sweet but resourceful mother of Pemberton’s illegitimate child, lives closely with her environment, going into the woods to gather roots and herbs until sundown.

But, as George Pemberton discovers, and his men already know, the land is hard: it fights back against the attacks of saws and axes. The long cutting blades snap as the tree trunks resist their bite. A young man drowns in a crowd of logs carried downstream. Rattlesnakes bite fiercely. There are rumors of a mountain lion lurking in the hills. The men slip and fall in acres of mud; the rivers fill with silt and dying trout; the wind blows hard and the snow lies thick. There are terrible deaths and injuries. And the end result is the same: a devastated wasteland of tree stumps that grows wider, season by season. Meanwhile, a political battle looms between the loggers and a growing movement to create the first national parks.

Then one beautiful evening, on a meadow golden with brush sedge, George Pemberton confronts his darkest fears alone and reaches out…for salvation.

Author note: Ron Rash was born in Chester Springs, South Carolina, in 1953 and grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He is proud of his Appalachian heritage which goes back 250 years. As a child, he spent summers at his grandmother’s home in the mountains of North Carolina. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University. He taught English at high school and at a technical college for 17 years. His first book of short stories, “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina” was published in 1994. Since then he has published three books of poetry, three short story collections, and four novels. His poetry and fiction have been published in numerous literary journals: he describes himself as a narrative poet, influenced by traditional Welsh poetry. His 2008 novel, “Serena,” is, like his earlier work, set in Appalachia and echoes the environmental themes of his poetry collection “Raising the Dead” (2002) and his novel “Saints at the River” (2004). He currently holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western CarolinaUniversity, where he teaches Appalachian Literature and Creative Writing. He has won the Novello Literary Award, Foreword Magazine’s Gold Medal in Literary Fiction, the James Still Award of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and an O. Henry Prize, among others.

The beautiful Appalachians in North Carolina are the oldest mountains in the United States. (Photo: mountain professor.com)
The beautiful Appalachians in North Carolina are the oldest mountains in the United States. (Photo: mountain professor.com)

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