Friday, March 6, 2009

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

This book fulfills categories in two of my reading challenges -- What's in a Name? and "a new to me author" from the Year of Mini Challenges. To fulfill the mini challenge, I am supposed to find information on this author and share it with you. So, here goes. Ron Rash was born in 1953 and grew up in upstate South Carolina, which is where this book is set. He went to Clemson University, which also gets a mention in the book. He currently holds the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University where he teaches the works of other great Southern writers like Lee Smith, Fred Chappell and Robert Morgan. This was his first novel for which he won the Novello Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award. Unfortunately, the book didn't garner the widespread publicity that it truly deserves. His latest book just came out, Serena. It is already gaining quite a buzz, and I think it will find a much wider audience. I hope it lives up to the quality of his first novel. If it does, book lovers all over the country are going to happily discover a great new author. Rash has also written short stories and a couple poem collections.

This book has everything a good Southern novel should contain -- love of place and a connection to the land, religious symbolism, ode to a fading way of life, superstition, and a fierce individualism. The story is set in the Jocasse Valley in upstate South Carolina just after the Korean War. The story is told from the perspectives of five different characters -- the Sheriff, the Deputy, Amy Holcombe, Billy Holcombe (Amy's husband), and Isaac Holcombe (the son). All we know at the beginning of the story is that Holland Winchester is missing. Holland is a rough, mean guy who has very few friends in the county, but he returned from Korea a hero. The Sheriff narrates the first chapter as he begins to try to find out what happened to Holland.

The story builds from there chapter by chapter as the main characters narrate their individual stories, and the reader begins to see how their lives are all interrelated. The book reminds me just a little bit of Robert Morgan's Gap Creek with its depiction of the land and how hard these people work to scrape a living out of the dirt. Another similarity and one of the reasons I really like the book is the chapters told by Amy and Billy Holcombe. I'm always fascinated to see the same events played out from the individual perspectives of a husband and wife. Rash does this particularly well. It would not have been near as good a story if he had left any one of these characters' stories out.

One of my favorite characters in the book is the Widow Glendower who lives alone in a remote area. She is a "granny woman" or midwife, and she practices herbal folk medicine. For all of these reasons, she is seen as a sort of witch. People seek her out when they are in desperate need of help, but at other times she is scoffed at or feared. The widow's speech exemplifies best some of the true Appalachian dialect that the author uses in the book. Amy Holcombe goes to see the widow when she and Billy have trouble conceiving a baby. However, once she conceives, Amy is scared to let the widow midwife for her as promised. She hopes she won't find out for fear that she may harm the child. I'm afraid to say too much more about the plot because I'm always scared I may inadvertently spoil it. However, I really feel like this is one of those books that transcends the plot. Don't get me wrong -- a great deal happens in the novel. However, for me at least, I don't think that is the most important part of the book. The characters themselves and their inner struggles are more important than the actual story. Why did she do that? How desperate would you have to be before making a decision like that? How could she keep quiet? The characters seem to be real. They're not one-dimensional stereotypes or archetypes. They exhibit all the characteristics that we all do. They're not always good, and they're not always bad. They have good intentions and still make terrible mistakes. That's what makes the readers heart ache for them. For me, that's what makes good writing.

It amazes me that this is a first novel. There is so much depth to it. It was a perfect book for our book club discussion last night. As I said earlier, the book is full of everything that makes Southern Literature its own genre. The focus on the land and the importance it plays in people's lives permeates the novel, as well as the fear of losing that land and thus a way of life. This drama unfolds in the forefront as the characters deal with the personal decisions they make and the hand that fate has dealt them. Carolina Power (now Duke Energy) is getting ready to flood the valley and all these people are being forced to move off land that has been in their families for generations. Unfortunately, this part of the story is all too true. There were many dams built in the Carolinas as part of the WPA projects following the Depression and WWII. Jocasse is just one example. Santee Cooper is another one that I'm familiar with, but I think there were somewhere between 7 and 9 dams built in North Carolina alone.

I can't wait to read his latest novel, Serena, and I hope that it lives up to this one. I rank this book right up there with the likes of the aforementioned Gap Creek and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons when considering contemporary Southern novelists. I'm thankful that there are Southern authors that are continuing in that proud traditions begun by legends such as Faulkner and O'Connor. As it turns out, I'm going to get to meet Ron Rash because he is the featured speaker at the Pfeiffer Friends of the Library luncheon on April 7th. I hope he's as good a speaker in person as he is on the page. I'll let you know. I'll leave you with a quote from the book that mentions the Eden of the title:
"There was something deep inside him that money and fame couldn't cure. I reckoned it must be in a lot of us since his records were so popular. Lonliness was a word you could give it, but it was something beyond words. It was a kind of yearning, a sense that part of your heart was unfilled. A preacher would say it was man's condition since leaving Eden, and so many of the old hymns were about how in another life we'd be with God. But we lived in the here and now. You tried to find something to fill that absence. Maybe a marriage could cure that yearning, though mine hadn't. Drink did it for many a man besides Williams. Maybe children filled it for some, or maybe like Daddy even the love of a place that connected you to generations of your family."


JoAnn said...

Thanks for introducing me to a new author. Hope you enjoy the luncheon!

Lisa said...

Joann, I hope you like his books if you read them.

Literary Feline said...

I am not familiar with this author or the book. It sounds fascinating though. I do like Southern literature and the way you described this one makes me want to run right out and get a copy of this one. Thanks for another great review, Lisa.

Lisa said...

liteary feline, if you like Southern Lit., I think you'd like this book. I'll look forward to seeing what you think about it if you get a copy.