By Ron Rash
Published October 2008 by Harper Collins
George Pemberton, partner in a lumber company, has returned to the North Carolina mountains with his bride Serena. As soon as they get off the train they are confronted by the father of George's teen-aged and pregnant former mistress. When the father pulls a knife on George, Serena encourages to George to fight back and George kills the father leaving the girl to tend for herself. George is by no means an easy man; he is tough on his help and quick to make examples of those who make mistakes. Serena, orphaned daughter of a lumbar family, steps right up with him, eager to show that she is every bit his equal. Together they kill or do away with anyone who's in their way. But when Serena learns that she will never have a child, she determines that George's son and former mistress must die and the pair are soon running for their lives.
I'm just going to say it up front--I loved this book. Rash's writing is just incredible; the mountains come alive and the story is every bit as character driven as it is plot driven. This one is almost gothic--terrible things just keep happening. These are not characters you know (unless you happen to live in the backwoods of North Carolina) but they feel so true to the time and place. Rash includes in his cast of characters a blind hag who delivers prophesies, a crazy preacher who warns his crew of impending doom, and the almost stereotypical widow woman who helps the young mother.
Serena is every bit as plotting and evil as Lady MacBeth. In the beginning, I was able to feel some empathy for her. She's an orphan and she's deeply in love with her husband. But this is one cold woman. As the book develops, more and more of her character emerges and soon you realize that this lady is capable of anything.
There is a wonderful crew that appears throughout the book. Rash uses their discussions amongst themselves as a way to explore moral issues and to explain things that have happened. Their conversations were one of my favorite parts of this book.
In their rush to expand their timber empire, the Pembertons are in a battle against time as they try to fight off the people trying to buy up the land around them for what is now the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. My timing with this book could not have been better since I had just watched the Ken Burns' series about the National Park series. It made reading about the battle between the people that lived on these lands, the people that wanted the natural resources and the people that wanted to preserve the land that much more interesting.
Like The White Tiger that I reviewed earlier this week, this is not a book for everyone. It's a very heavy read. I listened to this one and it was well-narrated (with the proviso that it's just really difficult for a man to get a woman's voice to sound right). I listen to books while I work and both nights that I came home without having finished this, I spent the evening wishing I would have brought the CDs home.