D.G. MARTIN: Novel Builds on Destruction of N.C. Forests
"Be careful when you talk about saving the forests," a wise mountain politician told me when I was campaigning in his home county. "A lot of your potential supporters make their living working for the lumber companies. They are good people. They care about the environment, maybe as much as you do. But they've got to put bread on the table."
Barack Obama now has to face this familiar competition between the environment and jobs. Taking into account the risks associated with mining and burning "clean coal," how can he protect the jobs of coal miners, utility workers, and others whose employment depends on the availability of electricity generated in coal-burning plants? How does he take account of the risk that an accumulation of coal ash residue may contaminate streams and rivers and adjoining lands?
From its beginning, North Carolina has been the scene of environmental destruction that accompanied the creation of great wealth and employment opportunities. The importance of tars and pitch to our economy gave us our Tar Heel nickname and destroyed vast forests of long-leaf pine.
In the early part of the last century, our mountain regions opened their treasured forests to massive clear-cut operations that destroyed some of the most beautiful and important natural landscapes.
North Carolina novelist Ron Rash's latest novel, "Serena," is set in the time of the Great Depression in the vast forests near Waynesville, west of Asheville. The leading characters are the owners of a Boston lumber company that is systematically cutting all the trees on the thousands of acres that it owns.
The background of systematic forest destruction is a perfect backdrop to Rash's epic story of love, hate, ambition, ruthlessness, and revenge. His novel opens at the railroad station in Waynesville. Pemberton, the leading partner in the lumber company, returns from Boston with his new bride, Serena. Her striking appearance and arrogance immediately awe Pemberton's partners and most of the employees, who have come to meet the couple at the station.
Also at the station are a rumpled mountain man and his pregnant teenage daughter, whose unborn child was fathered by Pemberton. The mountain man accosts Pemberton with a Bowie knife. In the ensuing fight, Pemberton sinks his own knife into the chest of the mountain man, who drops his Bowie knife and dies.
Serena, showing the dominating character that will carry the novel to its end, picks up the Bowie knife, hands it toward the dead mountain man's daughter, and says, "By all rights it belongs to my husband. It's a fine knife, and you can get a good price for it if you demand one. And I would. Sell it, I mean. That money will help when the child is born. It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me."
Some critics have compared the tale that follows to Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The ambition of Serena and Pemberton to dominate, own, and exploit, lead to the same kind of triumphs and ultimate "bloody-handed" tragedy that would have gained Shakespeare's attention and admiration.
Maybe it is a stretch to compare Ron Rash with Shakespeare. But not much of one.
Rash's vivid writing takes the reader by the hand and makes him a participant in the action, not just an observer. I found myself jumping aside to escape a misfallen tree that killed a lumberman. I panicked with a character who lost her way in the pitch dark of a mountain night. I died with one of the book's characters as rattlesnake poison crept up our legs.
"Serena" establishes Ron Rash as one of America's leading authors. New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin must agree. She recently named "Serena" one of her 10 Favorite Books of 2008.
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (Jan. 2, 4) guest is Scott Huler, author of "No-Man's Lands," a wonderful story of a modern North Carolinian's attempt to follow the travels and adventures described in "The Odyssey."
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