I have been a member of an Atlanta book club since 2003. We meet every six weeks in one member’s home and another member of the group volunteers to research the book and author. Last week, it was my turn to research the novel I’d chosen for the club: Serena by Ron Rash.
Mention Serena to one of today’s many contemporary southern authors and you’re likely to elicit gushing praise. You’d think Rash was Twain, Faulkner or Penn Warren, but he’s still a young writer, a native son of South Carolina and distinguished professor at Western Carolina University. A poet whose fiction is often described as “lyrical,” Rash says that he always aims to write clean, taut prose. Serena, his fourth novel, is a prime example. The first paragraph–just two sentences long–reveals so much about the story:
When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.
Rash talked about the opening scene of Serena at the Southern Literary Alliance conference in Chattanooga back in April. He said he wanted to model the book after an Elizabethan play, where all of the characters appeared together at the beginning on stage (in this case, a train platform). You’ll find other literary devices and allusions in Serena. The loggers known as the Highlanders operate as a Greek chorus, filling in important details of Serena and Pemberton’s brutal conquest of the North Carolina mountains. Serena, who was educated in a boarding school, often quotes from Greek plays like Medea. Those familiar with Shakespeare cannot help but draw comparisons between Rash’s Serena and the Bard’s Lady Macbeth.
Rash says his story ideas come to him first as a single image. For Serena, Rash says he pictured a strong, confident woman with blond hair riding a white horse. He was researching the history of the Smoky Mountains National Park at the time that the image came to him, so he fastened the stories together. Serena is set in 1929, just after the beginning of the Great Depression, at a time when the lumber industry threatens to destroy acres and acres of precious mountain forests. Rash incorporates this history of the national park and the theme of mankind vs. the environment in the novel.
Serena is Rash’s fourth novel. Published in 2008, Serena received critical raves and was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In September, the movie adaptation of the book makes its way to the big screen. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (who last coupled up in Silver Linings Playbook) play Serena and Pemberton. If you see the movie and miss the book, you will deeply regret it. Serena is definitely a new southern classic.