Serena: A Novel
By Ron Rash
Ecco Books (HarperCollins), 384 pp.
In the late 1920s, before George Pemberton's Boston Lumber Company constructed its western North Carolina logging camp—the setting for Ron Rash's haunting fourth novel, Serena—it set aside a portion of its land for a graveyard.
This was a practical consideration, an acknowledgment of the corporal dangers faced daily by the loggers, but there's a symbolic fatalism in it that hints at the dark futures awaiting Pemberton and his business partners in the hazy Appalachian mountains. Theirs is a sealed fate from the moment Pemberton's new wife, Serena, steps off the train in Waynesville.
It is fitting that a story as gruesome as this one opens with blood. A knife fight between Pemberton and Abe Harmon, who comes to the train depot to confront him about impregnating his teen daughter, ends with Harmon dead on the platform and his daughter Rachel left alone to raise her unborn son. Serena Pemberton is unfazed by the violence. She hands the girl back her father's Bowie knife and coolly advises her to sell it. "That money will help when the child is born," Serena says. "It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me."
Not yet 30, Serena is shrewder and more ambitious than any woman her husband has ever met, and it is her forthright demeanor (along with her astoundingly keen business sense and tireless work ethic) that initially seduces him. Having been born into a timber family in Colorado, where she lived until the flu epidemic of 1918 left her orphaned, Serena demonstrates from the beginning that she knows the business better than any of the men around her: She can take one look at a tree, in fact, and estimate exactly how many feet of lumber are in it. She is unsentimental about firing workers who don't prove adequately "loyal," and her Machiavellian policies ratchet up the company's productivity until the loggers have cut as far into the hills as the eye can see.
But that is not enough for Serena. Nothing would be enough for her, even if she cut down all the mahogany in Brazil, as she often speaks of doing after the Boston Lumber Company slashes through its land in North Carolina. One gets the sense that she is not so much motivated by the trappings of financial success (she has little use for expensive "baubles," as she calls them), as she is by pure, unadulterated conquest: conquest over the land and conquest over those who underestimate her.
The novel is impeccably constructed, with the Pembertons' story unfolding amid the death and dismemberment surrounding the timber business during the Depression. It isn't long before Serena, powered by the twin engines of fury and fate, becomes the object of her own mythology among the camp's workers, who function as a Greek chorus. Even their Appalachian storytelling tradition, however, can't match what she is capable of.
As ruthless as she is, Serena's singularity of purpose makes her a fascinating creature to watch, especially as she maneuvers around the environmentalists working to establish the area's first national parks. (Rash borrows convincingly from history in places, inserting naturalist Horace Kephart and members of the Vanderbilt/ Cecil family as characters; to this day, descendants of the latter own the Biltmore House in Asheville.)
Each character's actions have a frightening inevitability to them. Though Pemberton eventually realizes that his wife's greed exceeds even his own, a part of him knows that he can't stop what's already begun. "He stepped to the precipice and looked down at the vast dark gash they'd made on the land," Rash writes. "Pemberton stared at the razed landscape a long time, wanting it to be enough. ... [He] ... then let his eyes fall slowly downward, and it was as if he was falling as well, falling slow and deliberate and with his eyes open."
Much like Rash's other novels (The World Made Straight; Saints at the River), all set in southern Appalachia, Serena wouldn't be the immensely satisfying read that it is without the land itself playing a central role. For young Rachel Harmon, the mountains represent the shelter of home; for the Pembertons, they yield enormous wealth. The camp's workers are forced by economic necessity into the purgatorial position of destroying the land their families have lived on for generations. It is often the novel's simplest physical images, then, that Rash uses to the most arresting effect, such as this snapshot of the loggers making their way through the woods in winter:
By the time the last man made his ascent to the ridge, the warming ice had begun to slip free from the branches. Smaller pieces at first, tinkling like bells as they hit the frozen ground. [...] Men walked through them as they would the remnants of a vast shattered mirror.
Serena is that rare breed of book that is both tightly plotted and elegantly written, suspenseful and profound. By the story's end its title character—a Lady Macbeth without the conscience—has conducted a sweeping symphony of murder and mayhem, but she's undoubtedly a woman who'll stay with you a long time. As she herself points out, "Leaving something as it is makes no mark at all."
Ron Rash appears at McIntyre's Fine Books at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, and at Quail Ridge Books at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8.