The Cove

Ron Rash’s atmospheric, strangely uncomplicated novel, The Cove, begins with a scene of melancholy and abandonment, the promise of obliteration, and a shocking discovery. It is 1953 and a man called Parton, a scout for the Tennessee Valley Authority, is investigating a remote parcel of land in North Carolina’s Appalachia for inhabitants who will have to be evicted in advance of the valley’s inundation. In a small notch — from which the book takes its title — over which looms a light-exterminating, anvil-shaped cliff, he finds a deserted farm. Pasture fenced by sagging barbed wire, a collapsed barn, a cabin and two wells are the desolate relicts of past life and labor. The general doominess of the setting is further enhanced by an ash tree decked in charms against evil forces, dead American chestnut trees (victims of the plague that wiped them out across the land), and the memory of the now extinct Carolina parakeet. Parton, now thirsty, manages to winch up a bucket of water from one of the wells — and with it a human skull.

I give little away in revealing this, as it occurs on page 4; it takes another 243 pages and a step back to the late summer and autumn of 1918 to discover the skull’s owner. It is then, during the last months of World War I, that the story takes place. At its heart is Laurel, a young woman afflicted with a large birthmark. She is shunned by the residents of the nearest town, Mars Hill, who believe that the cove is cursed and that she herself is a witch. Both her parents are dead, and with occasional help from a neighbor, she survived the previous summer alone on the farm while her brother, Hank, was away fighting in France. He has returned, absent a hand but resolutely capable and preparing for marriage.

In passage after passage, Rash describes life and work on the farm in its dailiness — the preparation of meals, tending to chores, mending clothes, setting fence poles, pulling wire — creating a sense of order and industry that would seem to promise future happiness and prosperity. But as the initial scene of desolation and death promises the reverse, an air of menace and foreboding pervades the story. And, indeed, like the waters that will inundate the farm decades later, powerful, destructive forces are gathering outside the cove.

On one of her forays to do her laundry in a stream away from the farm, Laurel hears and secretly observes a young man resting in a makeshift camp, playing a flute; days later she finds him near death, stung by a swarm of wasps. She brings him home; he recovers and produces a piece of paper saying that his name is Walter and that he cannot speak or read or write. As we — unlike Laurel or Hank — have already learned that a man has escaped from what turns out to be an internment camp for Germans, we get the picture. Walter won’t speak, but he will help with the farm, and this he does handily, capturing Hank’s admiration and gratitude — and Laurel’s heart.

All the while, anti-German hysteria is escalating in Mars Hill, a volatile temper encouraged by one Sergeant Chauncey Feith, a preposterous character ripped from a handbook of one-dimensional villains. Vainglorious, opportunistic, and cowardly, he is a jingo, a sneak, and a bully. Son of a politically connected banker, he has been deployed as the town’s recruitment officer, thus avoiding the perils of the battlefield. He has gone about this zealously, congratulating himself at every turn for sending young men off to the war and priding himself on being an “unsung hero, because you couldn’t go around telling people that any man can hold a rifle and stand in a trench but only a select few could do what a general or commodore or recruiter did.” That’s Chauncey Feith for you — believe it or not.

If Walter were to show up at Mars Hill and be recognized, there is no question that he would be strung up as a Hun. Meanwhile life and love go on at the farm. Walter helps Hank in sinking a second well, and the description of digging and lining it deep, deep in the earth is wonderfully potent. Indeed, Rash’s material detail, depiction of work, and evocation of place — of nature, woods, and stream, the play of light and the oppressive dark of the monstrous cliff — are truly splendid. Still, between the threat of a lynching and scenes from the cove, a vacuum yawns, and into it flows one simple question stripped of complexity: Whose skull? Or, put another way, happy ending or sad? The answer, when it comes, seems perfectly arbitrary.