Troubles Plague Appalachia, Past and Present, in Ron Rash’s ‘In the Valley’

Lee Polevoi

 

In the Valley

By Ron Rash
Doubleday

240 pages

 

Few of the characters in stories by Ron Rash go looking for trouble, but most find it anyway.

 

The stories in his new collection, In the Valley, are set primarily in the Appalachian region of rural North Carolina. They plunge the reader into challenging, sometimes life-threatening situations that often resolve in surprising ways. 

 

Stacy, a mentally fragile park ranger, must hold her own against a lawbreaker twice her size in “Flight.” During the last days of the Civil War, a widow named Rebecca is confronted by a gang of violent Confederates, in “Neighbors.” A young man named Brent takes drastic action when a rich client cheats Brent’s blue-collar father out of money owed in “When All Stars Fall.” Carlyle, a man struggling to preserve his hard-won sobriety, reflects on a time when his resolve was challenged by a down-and-out Country & Western star, in “Last Bridge Burned.”

 

As Carlyle recalls his father telling him, One day you’ll learn trouble finds a fellow easy enough without inviting it in.

 

In the title story (actually a novella), Rash resurrects the iconic she-demon of his earlier, bestselling novel, Serena. In this long piece, Serena proves every bit as ruthless and single-minded as ever. It’s Serena, who upon returning to North Carolina in 1931, wreaks havoc on humans and wildlife in that remote region.

 

 

Among his many skills, Rash is adept at dropping readers immediately into the action. The opening sentences of “Neighbors” deftly illustrate this skill:

 

“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.”

 

Note how “the sound of chickens flapping and squawking,” as well as “the corn shucks rasped,” contribute to tension and foreboding at the very outset of the story.

 

In "L'homme Blessé," a widowed art teacher is drawn into a mystery surrounding the strange resemblance between drawings left behind by a World War II veteran and those in a famous French cave where the original prehistoric drawings were found. For much of the story, we don’t know the circumstances behind Jake’s wife’s death, only that up to a year has passed since the tragic event, and he has yet to emerge on the other side:

 

“Jake awoke at three, feeling the same chest tightness that had sent him to the school infirmary last week. After an electrocardiogram showed nothing, Jake was given a scrip for Klonopin. Don’t hesitate to use it, Jake, Dr. Wells had told him. He knew he wouldn’t go back to sleep, so he made some coffee, then waited at the kitchen table for dawn to lighten the window above the sink. He showered and dressed, afterward drove to the college to teach his last classes of the semester.”

 

 

Anyone who’s experienced profound grief can appreciate the restraint in these sentences, and the torment of waiting “for dawn to lighten the window above the sink.”

 

Perhaps the only difference between the stories in In the Valley and many others Rash has written lies in the sense of place. The title novella aside, some of these stories lack the acute regional specificity—that is, the deep lived-in feel of North Carolina’s Appalachia country—on display in past stories. It’s a small complaint, measured against the pure craft Rash offers in these shorter works.

 

In the Valley is an accomplished book by a grounded, unsentimental master.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Penguin Random House

--Alex Griechenko (publicdomainpictures.net, Creative Commons)

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