Serena, the fourth novel by Ron Rash, was the selection for the recent Community Read at the local libraries. Rash, a Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, is a poet whose words resonate through the pages like the wind echoes through the mountains he writes about. His prose is terrific. He is a master of language.
“Serena” is a strange tale of death and destruction, ambition and fulfillment. Set in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in 1929 just after the stock market crash, it relates the story of George Pemperton, a northern lumber baron, and his bride, Serena, a calculating and designing woman determined to let nothing stand in her way of felling every tree in their logging claim. She is only interested in money and domination and is determined to beat the U.S. government in its proposal to create a national park. Then she plans to do the same thing in Brazil.
A seductive creature she seems to have a heart of stone without a care for anyone she destroys if they get in her way. With her pet, a Berkute eagle from Mongolia which she bought to take care of rattlesnakes which frightened the men who worked for them, she selected Rachel, a young woman impregnated by Pemperton and her child as her first victims. Permperton had killed Rachel’s father and Serena confessed her desire to kill a person. A cold-blooded killer she takes care of the doctor who misdiagnoses a complication of her pregnancy which leaves her barren and her child stillborn. With her sidekick, Galloway, foreman of one of the logging crews, they track down anyone Serena wishes disposed of.
Rash provides a chorus of Appalachian loggers who comment on God, greed and fate. They are keenly aware of the dangers they face each day they are on the job, but they have families to feed and must work.
“Serena” is a powerful novel of the past history of our country – of the domination of the strong and wealthy over the poor and weak.