…mesmerizing…[Rash is] one of the best living American writers, and his laconic understatement is much more powerful than excess…The novella's minor characters, human and otherwise, are all drawn with exceptional care. That's also true in the nine other stories in this slim volume…
Winner of the 2020 Thomas Robinson Prize for Southern Literature
"Mesmerizing...He's one of the best living American writers."Janet Maslin, New York Times Book Review
From bestselling and award-winning writer Ron Rash ("One of the great American authors at work today."The New York Times) comes a collection of ten searing stories and the return of the villainess who propelled Serena to national acclaim, in a long-awaited novella.
Ron Rash has long been a revered presence in the landscape of American letters. A virtuosic novelist, poet, and story writer, he evokes the beauty and brutality of the land, the relentless tension between past and present, and the unquenchable human desire to be a little bit better than circumstances would seem to allow (to paraphrase Faulkner).
In these ten stories, Rash spins a haunting allegory of the times we live inrampant capitalism, the severing of ties to the natural world in the relentless hunt for profit, the destruction of body and soul with pills meant to mute our painand yet within this world he illuminates acts of extraordinary decency and heroism. Two of the stories have already been singled out for accolades: "Baptism" was chosen by Roxane Gay for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2018, and "Neighbors" was selected by Jonathan Lethem for The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. And in revisiting Serena Pemberton, Rash updates his bestselling parable of greed run amok as his deliciously vindictive heroine returns to the North Carolina wilderness she left scarred and desecrated to make one final effort to kill the child that threatens all she has accomplished.
"A gorgeous, brutal writer" (Richard Price) working at the height of his powers, Ron Rash has created another mesmerizing look at the imperfect world around us.
The 10 stories in Rash’s revelatory collection (after The Risen) range from contemporary slices of life to period character studies, and from quiet closet dramas to miniature epics. The title story, a pendant to his 2008 novel, Serena, flirts with the mythological in its extraordinary depiction of Serena Pemberton, the steel-willed owner of a Depression-era logging camp, who rules over her employees and the forests that they’re felling like a raging Fury. Standouts among the book’s contemporary entries include “L’homme Blessé,” in which a grieving widower finds consolation in prehistoric art reproduced by a traumatized WWII veteran on the walls of his room; “Ransom,” about the peculiar bond a kidnap victim develops with her abductor; and “Sad Man in the Sky,” whose main character, a newly released con, engineers an audacious airborne stunt to deliver presents to children that a restraining order prevents him from visiting. In simple but eloquent prose, Rash describes the vulnerabilities, fears, and desires of his characters and shows how often they unite persons from vastly different walks of life and social strata. The skillful craftsmanship of these tales and their subtle but powerful climaxes make for profoundly moving reading. (Aug.)
Mesmerizing...In the Valley takes Serena to such a fever pitch of destruction that in a lesser writer's hands it might seem overheated. But Rash maintains the deep keel that has always distinguished him...He's one of the best living American writers, and his laconic understatement is much more powerful than excess…Haunting and darkly funny.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times Book Review
"The power of Rash’s stories lies in [the] small moments of connection amid all the noise of rupture and heartbreak. Rash writes with a direct precision that puts the reader at ease. Here is a storyteller who not only knows his characters, but knows all the details around them a well.”
—Rion Amilcar Scott, New York Times Book Review
"One of the great American authors at work today."
—The New York Times
"As good as any contemporary American novelist I've read."
—The Wall Street Journal
"A riveting storyteller."
"Rash's spectacular stories may originate in the peculiar soil of Appalachia, but their reach and their rewards are vast."
—NPR's Fresh Air
“Complex tales of human failings and triumphs...Sacrifice, revenge, redemption and small acts of humanity play out to heart-wrenching effects in his hands. [The collection] promises a small glimmer of hope for humanity, and that’s something we could use a dose of right now.”
"Pure craft...An accomplished book by a grounded, unsentimental master.”
"A gift for his legions of fans [that] could also usher in a new crop of Rash readers and serve as a fitting intro to his work...Rash's prose [is] economical and by turns tense, tender, and unsentimentally searing."
“Rash’s best genre...Rash is expert at revealing the sword of vengeance’s double edge—how honed it is, how it cuts whomever wields it...A brace of strong stories, and the [title] novella’s a fine, suspenseful contribution to the thriving genre of Appalachian mayhem.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“Rash’s lyrical, atmospheric collection, with its strong sense of place, will appeal to readers of Rick Bragg and Jesmyn Ward.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Revelatory...In simple but eloquent prose, Rash describes the vulnerabilities, fears, and desires of his characters and shows how often they unite persons from vastly different walks of life and social strata. The skillful craftsmanship of these tales and their subtle but powerful climaxes make for profoundly moving reading.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Haunting...Rash profoundly immerses readers in the Appalachia he calls home. His latest collection is highly recommended not only for readers who value protecting our environment but also for anyone who enjoys well-told stories of justice and revenge.”
"At turns dark, craggy, and heart-wrenching, Rash's writing is never easy, but it is also lovely, moving, and rich in history and culture, just like the Appalachian region it so beautiful captures."
This collection of nine short stories and a novella features the return of the ruthless Serena Pemberton, a character introduced in Rash's Serena, published in 2008 and a PEN/Faulkner finalist. Rash's readers will recognize the themes here—family honor and pride, generational change, wounds of the past, hard living, and cruelty—but while the stories are familiar, they are also uniquely new and fresh. This is undoubtedly the work of a short story author of remarkable skill who cares for the South, in all its complexities. The title novella is so gripping and at times horrifying that it explains why Rash chose to return to Serena Pemberton. She is an unforgettable character. VERDICT At turns dark, craggy, and heart-wrenching, Rash's writing is never easy, but it is also lovely, moving, and rich in history and culture, just like the Appalachian region it so beautifully captures. Highly recommended for both those just discovering Rash and for returning readers. [See Prepub Alert, 2/4/20.]—Shaunna E. Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Rash's latest is a collection of 10 stories anchored by a novella featuring the ruthless Serena Pemberton of his best-known novel, Serena (2008), as she returns to the U.S. and resumes her reign of terror.
Though Serena has received the lion's share of attention, the short story has always been Rash's best genre. Several pieces collected here—mostly set in western North Carolina from the Civil War to the present—center on revenge that wants to see itself as righteous. Rash is expert at revealing the sword of vengeance's double edge—how honed it is, how it cuts whomever wields it. In the excellent "Flight," for example, Stacy, a wounded, justice-minded young park ranger, determines that she'll have the better of a local who keeps tauntingly poaching trout. Another standout is "The Belt," about an octogenarian Civil War veteran and his talisman, the lucky brass buckle that saved him in battle. His family has struggled mightily—that buckle's luck has never seemed transferable—but old Jubal hopes the luck might extend, in one last moment of crisis, to his namesake grandson, a toddler. Perhaps best of all is "L'homme Blessé," about a recently widowed art teacher summoned to a deep-country cabin where an old man, psychologically wrecked after World War II, lived out his days sheltered by his own art—a near-perfect re-creation of the drawings inside a French cave the shattered soldier had visited. But the title novella makes for the centerpiece. Unrepentant lumber queen Serena has returned home, where she needs to accomplish the impossible: clear-cut a last mountaintop forest in just days. To do so—with the help of her conscienceless enforcer, Galloway, and his terrifying, spooky mother—she must bribe, cajole, intimidate, murder, perhaps even bend the rules of time, but there's little Serena can't do. Sure, now and again Rash tries to channel Cormac McCarthy and fails; a couple stories seem slight; and so on. But those are quibbles, not disfiguring flaws.
A brace of strong stories, and the novella's a fine, suspenseful contribution to the thriving genre of Appalachian mayhem.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Rash / IN THE VALLEY
They came at dawn, ground crackling beneath the trample of hooves, amid it the sound of chickens flapping and squawking. Then voices, one among them shouting to dismount. The corn shucks rasped as Rebecca rose, quickly tugging her wool overcoat tight against her gown. She waked the children. As they rubbed questioning eyes, Rebecca whispered for them to get under the bed and be absolutely still. Hannah’s chin quivered but she nodded. Ezra, three years older, took his sister’s hand as they raised themselves off the mattress. He helped Hannah underneath and followed.
A pounding on the door began as Rebecca gathered the salt pouch from the larder, the box of matches off the fireboard. She considered lifting the loose plank beneath the table and placing what filled her hands inside the clay crock, but the pounding was so fierce now that the door latch looked ready to splinter. Rebecca shoved the salt and matches beneath the bed too, whispered a last plea for the children to be quiet. She waited a few moments, some wisp of hope that the men might simply take the chickens and the ham in the barn and leave. But the man at the door shouted that they’d burn out those inside if the door didn’t open.
Rebecca knew they would, that these men had done worse things in Shelton Laurel. Just months ago, they’d whipped Sallie Moore until blood soaked her back, roped Martha White to a tree and beat her. Barns had been burned, wells fouled with slaughtered animals. There’s nary a meanness left for them rebels to do to us, Ginny Lunsford had claimed, but she’d been proved wrong the next day when eleven men and a thirteen-year-old boy were marched west a mile on the Knoxville pike, lined up, and shot.
Rebecca lifted the latch. As she pushed the door open, boot steps clattered off the porch. A low swirling fog made the horses mere gray shapes, those mounted upon them adrift, like revenants. Rebecca stepped far enough out to show her empty hands. A rein shook and a horse moved forward, its rider a man whose age lay hidden behind a thick brown beard. He alone wore an actual uniform, though his butternut jacket lacked two buttons, his officer’s hat stained and slouched. He raised a hand, but before tipping his hat he caught himself, set the hand on the saddle pommel. The man asked if anyone else was inside.
“I’m Colonel Allen, of the North Carolina 64th regiment,” he said. “You’ve heard of us, of me.”
“Then you know you’ll rue any lie you tell me.”
“My chaps,” Rebecca said. “They’re but seven and four.”
“Bring them out here,” Colonel Allen said, and turned to a tall man behind him.
Rebecca went inside, kneeled by the bed, and helped the children to their feet. Hannah whimpered, Ezra’s eyes wide with fear.
“Will they kill us, Mother?” Ezra asked.
“No,” Rebecca answered, her hands huddling them onto the porch. “But we must do what is asked.”
They stood beside the cord of wood Brice Fothergill had cut for them in October, accepting nothing for his labor. Rebecca took off the overcoat and covered the children. After all of the men had tethered their horses, Colonel Allen and the sergeant stood in front of the porch as the other men gathered behind them. The chickens had calmed and several clucked and pecked nearby.
“Come a little closer, chickees,” one of the soldiers said, “and I’ll give ye neck a nice stretch.”
Hannah started to cry. Rebecca stroked the child’s flaxen hair as she whispered for her to hush.
“Them young ones look stout for their ages,” the sergeant said. “Must be eating well.”
“A nit makes a louse,” a soldier wearing a black eye patch said, and another man loudly agreed.
Allen raised a hand and the men grew quiet.
“Your man,” he asked, “where is he?”
“Likely hiding up on the ridge,” the sergeant said, “waiting to take a shot at us once we’re headed back. That’s their way up here, ain’t it?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Allen said, staring at Rebecca as he spoke. “They’ll not face us like soldiers. They leave their women and children behind to do that.”
“I’ve got no man,” Rebecca said.
“What about them children,” the sergeant scoffed. “They just sprout out of the ground like toadstools?”
“My husband’s dead.”
“Dead,” Allen said skeptically. “How long has he been dead?”
“She’s lying,” the sergeant said when she hesitated. “Him and some of his bluebelly neighbors is probably beading us right now.”
“Aaron’s been dead two years,” Rebecca said.
The sun had climbed the ridge now, and yellow light settled on the yard and cabin. The fog began unknitting into loose gray strands and all could be seen—the outhouse and spring, the barn where a ham wrapped in cheesecloth hung from a rafter, stored above it hay for the calf her closest neighbor, Ira Wilkey, would bring once it was weaned. Unlike many in Shelton Laurel, Ira had enough land to hide his livestock, so offered the calf for a quilt Rebecca made from what clothing Aaron left behind. We’ll not make it through these times if we don’t look after each other, Ira answered when she protested the trade was unfair to him.
The sergeant stepped to the side of the cabin, his eyes sweeping the clearing.
“I don’t see no grave.”
“Aaron ain’t buried here,” Rebecca said.
“No?” Allen said. “Where then?”
“Which cemetery in Asheville?” the sergeant asked.
“I can’t remember its name,” Rebecca said.
“I told you what we do to liars,” Allen said.
“I argue he’s close by, sir,” the sergeant said. “He could be hiding in the barn.”
“Take two men and go look, Corporal,” Allen said to the man with the eye patch.
“Where’s your pa, boy?” the sergeant asked.
Behind them now, Rebecca pulled the overcoat tighter around the children.
“All he knows is his daddy’s dead.”
“That right, son?” Allen asked. “Your pa’s dead?”
“Tell him your daddy’s dead,” Rebecca said.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra said softly.
“Where’s he buried, boy?” the sergeant asked.
“He don’t know none of that,” Rebecca said.
“That right, son?” Allen asked.
“Yes, sir, what? You know or you don’t know?”
Ezra looked at the ground.
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
“I can likely guess some places,” Allen said to his sergeant. “Can’t you?”
“Antietam or Gettysburg maybe.”
“I’d say more likely Tennessee, since they head west to join. Shiloh or Stones River, there or maybe Donaldson.”
At the last word Rebecca’s right hand clutched Hannah’s shoulder so hard the child gave a sharp cry.
“So it was Donaldson,” the sergeant said.
Rebecca didn’t respond.
“My first cousin was killed at Donaldson,” Allen said. “A good man with children no older than those you got your hands on.”
“I had a friend killed there,” the sergeant added. “Grapeshot ripped his legs off.”
The two men said nothing more, appearing to expect some response. The corporal and the two men came out of the barn.
“Ain’t no one hiding in there,” the corporal said, “but there’s a ham curing and it’s enough to give some bully soldiers a full feeding.”
One of the men whooped and slapped a palm twice against his belly.
“What else is in the barn?” Allen asked.
“No livestock,” the corporal said, “but enough hay to make a pretty fire.”
The only sound was the snort of a horse as Rebecca and the men waited for Colonel Allen to give his orders. Soldiers. That was what the corporal claimed them to be. Rebecca thought of the men sketched in the newspapers her father-in-law had brought with Aaron’s letters in the war’s first months. Those soldiers wore plumed hats and buttoned jackets, sabers and sashes strapped on their waists. They looked heroic and Rebecca knew that many, like Aaron, had been. Some of these men before her were surely heroic at one time too, but now their ill-matched clothing offered no sign of allegiance except to their own thievery.
“Bost,” Allen said to a man who wore a frock coat Rebecca recognized, “you and Murdock and Etheridge gather what chickens you can.”
Several men shouted encouragement as Bost dove for the closest chicken. White feathers slapped his face until he pinned the bird firmly to the ground.
“Kill it now?” Bost panted, his scratched face looking up at the colonel.
“No, we’ll take them with us.”
A second man retrieved a burlap sack and the squawking chicken was shoved inside. Bost knotted the sack and tied it to a saddle as the other two men began their own chases.
“Take a man and get that ham, Corporal,” Allen said. “Sergeant, go inside. Look around good. You know how they hide things.”
“Nothing inside is worth your while,” Rebecca said. “There’s a root cellar behind the barn. It’s partial hid by old board planks. Near all what food we have is there.” She met Allen’s eyes, saw that, like Aaron’s had been, there were gold flecks within the brown. “These chaps are cold. Just let me and them go inside, and you take everything else.”
“She must be hiding something real good,” the sergeant said. “It’s yankee money or clothes that boy there can’t fill. Maybe the son of a bitch himself is hiding under the bed.”
“Go see then,” Allen said, and turned to Rebecca. “You and your children come on out here.”
“Let me get their shoes first,” Rebecca said, but Allen shook his head.
Rebecca settled Hannah on her hip and took Ezra’s hand. They went down the porch’s one step and into the yard. As Allen gave more orders, Rebecca glanced furtively toward the ridge, looking for a bright wink of sun on metal, then looked farther down the valley. Smoke rose from Ira Wilkey’s farm and, beyond it, Brice and Anna Fothergill’s home, which meant the Confederates had come in the night unseen. Hannah began whimpering again, but Ezra stood silent, his hands balled into fists. Don’t, she whispered, and used her free hand to open his.
She should have burned the letters, as she had done with the newspapers her father-in-law had brought. But there were only five because Aaron died early in the war, so early her father-in-law had been able to travel the eighteen miles from Asheville in broad daylight, this before bushwhackers as well as Colonel Allen and his men made any stranger in Shelton Laurel a suspected spy or thief, thus shot on sight. I will return with a wagon to take you and the children back to live with me. That was her father-in-law’s promise when he’d brought the last letter, which contained a brass button taken from Aaron’s field jacket. My hope is that this button might offer some remembrance, Aaron’s commander had written.
But her father-in-law had not come again, with or without a wagon, and Rebecca had wondered if it was suspicion of her allegiance, not fear, that had kept him away.
“Put a match to the barn?” the corporal asked when he’d returned with the ham.
“We’ll feed our horses first,” Allen said, as men returned with potatoes and apples from the root cellar, what chickens had been caught.
The two privates came out of the cabin, one holding the salt pouch and matches. The sergeant followed, in his hands the crock.
“It’s near all letters, except for this,” the sergeant said. He cradled the container with his elbow as he reached inside and removed a button with CSA stamped into the brass.
He handed it to Allen, who examined the button a moment before putting it in his jacket pocket.
“You know it was took off one of our own, probably killed up here by some coward sniping from behind a tree.”
“What do the letters say?” Allen asked.
“You know I never had any school learning, Colonel.”
Rebecca glanced toward the ridge, then the closer woods before she spoke.
“Please,” she said softly.
Colonel Allen took the crock and sat on the porch step. He lifted the lid, took out a letter, and began to read. As he did so, Rebecca remembered the night Aaron had packed the travel trunk with clothing but also his briar pipe, pocket watch, and penknife, the tintype taken on their wedding day. She thought of the two shirts and pair of breeches he’d left, cut up for Ira’s quilt, and how her fingers lingered on those cloth squares, sometimes pressing one against her cheek.
After he’d read the first letter, Allen read quicker, then merely scanned. Coming to the last, which, unlike the others, had been written on rag paper, he read slowly again, then raised his eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked, his voice as perplexed as his eyes.
When Rebecca didn’t respond, he refolded the letter carefully and set it back in the container. Colonel Allen placed the lid back on and stood.
“Tell the men to put everything back, Sergeant Reeves.”
“Sir?” the sergeant said.
“Free those chickens, and put that ham back too,” Allen said, addressing the corporal as well. When the sergeant didn’t respond, he added, “That’s a direct order.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said, not alone in watching hungrily as the ham was returned to the barn.
“Mrs. Penland, it is too cold for you and your children to be out here,” Allen said. “You must go inside.”
He took off his hat and followed them. Colonel Allen set the crock on the fireboard and went out to the porch, first for kindling, then one of the hearth logs Brice Fothergill had cut. Allen took a tin of matches from his pocket and lit the kindling, waved his hat to coax the fire into being.
“You children,” he said as he stood. “Come closer and get warm. You too, ma’am.”
Rebecca did as he said, placing the children before her. The flames thickened and Hannah and Ezra ceased to shiver. Rebecca took a quilt from the bed and laid it before the fire.
“Lay down there,” she told them.
“Their real ages?” Allen asked.
“Seven and ten.”
“Yes,” he said, looking at them. “I guessed about that. Had my son and daughter lived, they would have soon been their sizes.”
Rebecca hesitated, then spoke.
“I know,” she said, “about their dying, I mean. It’s said you blame people here for it.”
“They are to blame. They came at night like cowards and terrorized my wife and sick children. Do you deny that?”
“No,” Rebecca said.
The sergeant knocked and opened the door.
“Your orders have been carried out.”
Colonel Allen nodded and the door closed.
“The commendation from General Buckner,” he said, nodding at the fireboard. “It speaks well of your Aaron as a soldier, and the letters speak equally well of him as husband and father. I regret that I had to peruse them, but it was necessary. I ask your forgiveness for that and for what has occurred today. I, we, will attempt recompense. We have sugar, and if you need more wood cut . . .”
“No,” Rebecca said. “I want nothing from you but what you and your men came here to do.”
“Your anger at our ill treatment I understand, Mrs. Penland, but had you simply told us what we now know.”
“And after you’re gone, what do you think will happen if you and your men leave this farm as if you’d never come?”
Colonel Allen’s mouth tightened into a grimace. The only sound was the fire’s hiss and crackle. Rebecca looked down and saw that Hannah’s eyes were already closed. Ezra’s too were beginning to droop, though his mouth remained in a defiant pout.
“What would you have us do then?”
“What you came here to do,” Rebecca answered, “that and you and your men don’t tell anyone about the letters.”
He nodded and stepped to the doorway.
“Corporal, go get the ham.”
“But, sir, you said . . .”
“I know what I said. Get the men to catch three chickens, no more. You can kill them. We’ll eat them when we’re out of this godforsaken valley.”
“That won’t be enough,” Rebecca said.
“Yes, it will.”
“No,” Rebecca said. “It won’t be.”
“What more then would you have me do? You have no well to foul.”
“The barn, you must burn it.”
“I will not do that, Mrs. Penland. Your husband died for our cause. The ham and chickens will be enough. Tell your neighbors we were here only minutes. Say we set the barn afire but did not stay to ensure if it fully caught. But those letters, they should be burned. If one of your neighbors were to come upon them . . .”
Colonel Allen stepped out of the door and gave orders to mount.
The clatter of the men and horses leaving did not wake the children. Rebecca went outside, looked down the valley, and saw that smoke yet hovered above the two farms. A skein of smoke, nothing like the billowing plumes that rose a year ago at Brice and Anna’s place, last June at Ira’s. Everyone in Shelton Laurel would soon know the soldiers had come. They would hear or see them passing on the pike that led back to Marshall. Some of the men might have time to fire a few shots. Then they would come and see if Rebecca and the children were safe.
But they would not arrive for a little while, so Rebecca went inside the cabin. Not wanting to waste a match, she pulled a half-burned piece of kindling from the hearth and walked to the barn. Nine years, Rebecca thought, remembering how Ezra was already kicking in her belly when she and Aaron had arrived from Buncombe County. The cabin had been here, but not the barn. Ira had come first to help, then others bringing axes and oxen. In a week the barn had been built. She remembered Aaron’s warning the night before he left for Asheville—Always say Unionist.
A thick matting of straw lay in an empty stall. Rebecca dropped the kindling and soon flames spilled into the adjoining stalls before laddering up gate posts and beams. Only when flame blossomed in the loft did Rebecca leave the barn. Frost still limned the ground, and that was a blessing. It would keep the fire from spreading.
When she’d returned to the cabin, Rebecca opened the crock and saw Colonel Allen had not put the button back. Not even his button, not even that, she thought, as she took out the letters and held them above the flames. Foolish not to have done it before, Rebecca knew, and told herself to open her hand and let them go.
But she couldn’t, so Rebecca put them in the container and placed it back in the cubbyhole. She went outside and saw that the barn had crumpled except for the locust beams. The thick smoke that clouded the sky minutes before was now no more, signaling to neighbors that the Confederates were gone.
By the time Ira and Brice arrived, the fire would be no more than a smolder. The two men would kick the ashes, hoping to find a locust beam with only its surface charred. They’d douse the beam with water from the spring and drag it from the rubble. The Ledford and Hampton men would arrive next, and soon after whole families. The Lunsfords and Smiths, then the Moores and the Sheltons. The women would bring food enough to get Rebecca and the children through the winter. Men would bring axes and the surrounding woods would sound like gunshots as the honed metal struck in the November air. All day the women would cook and tend fires. Children would gather kindling, then scuff among ashes for the iron nails that had secured the shingles. Everyone would work until dusk, then return the next day to help more. Ira Wilkey might or might not say We will get through this together, but that was understood. They were neighbors.