I first met Ron in 2004 at the Hendersonville Library, where he read from his poetry and intrigued us with the first two pages of his then-forthcoming second novel Saints at the River. I immediately read two books of his poetry and his first novel. One Foot in Eden is set on the Jocassee River before Carolina Power turned it into Jocassee Lake. The plot is heart-rending, and I cried over it. Considering the virile masculinity of his poetry, I was surprised that he was totally convincing when writing in a feminine voice in one of the five sections of that novel. One Foot in Eden is barely 200 pages in length. Every word signifies in Rash’s novels, just as in his poetry.
Since then, I have read all eleven of his books: his poetry (Eureka Mill, Among the Believers and Raising the Dead), his short stories (The Night that Jesus Fell to Earth, Casualties, Chemistry and Other Stories and Burning Bright) and his novels (One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight and Serena).
Saints at the River is set post-World War II on a fictional river that highly resembles the Chattooga. It begins in the first person of a thirteen-year-old girl as she drowns in the river, and then necessarily shifts point of view. Wealthy tourists, newly arrived environmentalists and pragmatic Western Carolina natives populate the novel. The nuances of each character are depicted by his or her use of language. Vocabulary and construction reflect background.
The World Made Straight concerns the modern-day descendants of two families (one pro-Union, one pro-Confederacy) that were involved in the Shelton Laurel Massacre in Madison County during the Civil War.
Serena takes place in Haywood and Jackson Counties during the 1930’s. Rapacious lumber barons include a young anti-heroine of mythic grand ambition and her husband. Think “Macbeth.” Their goal is the clear-cutting of as much of the virgin mixed hardwood forest as possible before the Department of the Interior creates Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Janet Maslin listed Serena as one of the ten best books she reviewed in 2008.
Ron Rash’s ancestors have lived in Southern Appalachia since the 1700’s. He was raised in Boiling Springs, SC. After 2003 when he became the Parris Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, he moved near Sylva. He now lives at most a few miles from land that his ancestors owned, perhaps even on it. He has internalized the history of the region, and his works provide a fictional and poetic representation of Southern Appalachian culture that is unparalleled. At the time of his WCU appointment, he commented on his own writing by quoting Eudora Welty: "One place understood helps us understand all other places better."
If you want to understand the geology, botany and history of this region, read Wilma Dykeman’s exemplary 1955 work of non-fiction, The French Broad. If you want to understand the people, read Ron Rash’s poetry, stories and novels. I highly recommend you start with Among the Believers, Burning Bright, Serena and One Foot in Eden.