Saturday, February 14, 2009

Serena by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash
New York: HarperCollins Publishers
$24.95 – 371 pages 2008

There is no animal more invincible than a woman,
Nor fire either, nor any wildcat so ruthless.
-Aristophanes, “Lysistrata”

In graduate school I once enrolled in a literature course devoted to “evil women.” It was a daunting collection of demonic and murderous ladies and I still carry some vivid memories of their notable acts: Lillith, the sensual demon that tormented Adam, defied God and refused to accept her “secondary” role in Adam’s Eden; Medea whose love turned to merciless rage when she was betrayed; Lady Macbeth, who shared her husband’s vaulting ambition and
readily murdered anyone who became a hindrance to their wishes; and finally Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, a barren woman who plots to destroy fertility/creativity in others.

In his remarkable novel, Serena, (also the name of the book’s “anti-heroine,”) Ron Rash has created a dark and pitiless sorceress who deserves to take an honored place in the pantheon wicked women. In fact, Selena Pemberton embodies the vices of all of her predecessors. Let’s set the stage for a drama that unfolds with all the intrigue and bloodletting of a 17th century Jacobean revenge tragedy.

The setting of Serena is western North Carolina in the turbulent decade following the 1929 stock market crash. While Horace Kephart struggles to save the region’s diminishing wilderness, a half-dozen timber barons are intent on reducing the same area to an immense, stump-studded wilderness. When the Pemberton Lumber Company with George and Serena Pemberton at the helm, arrive in Waynesville, they quickly demonstrate that they embody the essence of timber baron morality: arrogance, greed, an immense hunger to subdue and destroy the natural world – all of which is forged into a ruthless single-mindedness, a desire to succeed at all cost.

Horace Kephart makes an eerie prediction regarding the tragic consequences of lumber mills when he witnesses the arrival of the “mindless machines” on the slopes near Hazel Creek in Our Southern Highlanders:

“(Every tree, plant, beast and fish) will be swept away. Fire will blacken the earth; flood will swallow and spew forth the soil. The simple-hearted native men and women will scatter and disappear. In their stead will come slaves speaking strange tongues to toil in darkness under rocks. Soot will rise and foul gases; the streams will run murky death.”

Although George Pemberton quickly demonstrates that he is a brutal, selfish and arrogant beast in his own right, he is a pale presence when compared to Serena. Within days of her arrival, she takes control of the camp. Clad in jodhpurs and riding an Arabian stallion, she oversees the camp’s daily operation with a cool confidence that is disturbing. In short order, the work crew learns to both fear and revere Selena. With brutal efficiency she solves problems as diverse as George’s illegitimate child by a local girl, the fates of disruptive employees and untrustworthy investors and a troublesome local sheriff. Some merely vanish, but the mutilated remains of others (found in hotel rooms or train stations) suggest that for those who defy Serena, the consequences are often fatal!
When the timber workers complain of rattlesnakes in the woods (a problem that affects their efficiency), Serena acquires a Persian eagle (it perches on the pommel of her saddle). The bird soars above the work crew as it advances into the forest and occasionally streaks down like a divine force, snatching rattlers from the undergrowth, shredding them and bearing their remains aloft.

Serena has a rich diversity of sub-plots, including the travail of Rachael Harmon who bears Pemberton’s child and attracts Serena’s enmity (that intensifies after Serena miscarries); Sheriff McDowell who defies Serena; a knife-wielding killer who becomes Serena’s disciple and a colorful collection of timber workers who function as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the daily life of the camp. In addition, Serena contains an impressive collection of Appalachian folklore ranging from the existence of mountain painters (panthers). the potency of herbal remedies, the belief in madstones and the means of invoking “blood stoppers.” (The mountain natives who are employed by Pemberton are given to lively discussions of
Folk remedies, superstitions and lore.)

At times, Serena Pemberton is in danger of morphing into a near- supernatural being – a kind of blond Viking warrior who leaves a wake of broken and/or quaking victims behind her. However, she is also a vibrant character in an historic drama. She moves, breathes and speaks from a period of memorable Appalachian history and her presence adds depth and dimension to our perception of that time. Personages such as Horace Kephart, the Vanderbilts (who come to dinner) and a host of adversaries - all confront Serena and the meetings invariably strike sparks. These encounters (real and imagined) give us vivid glimpses into the issues that were at stake when the fate of our shrinking wilderness hung in the balance.

Finally, it seems appropriate to comment on Serena’s fate. Given the immensity of her crime, it may be that no agent or method will satisfy the reader’s need for some special (terrible) customized punishment that suits Serena’s crimes. Even so, the “agent” that finally arrives to extract a kind of “poetic justice” from this evil bitch seems perversely apt. I’ll say no more.