In this beautifully written collection of short stories, Ron Rash digs deep into the lives of people in the North Carolina Appalachian region to create a gritty and at times chilling portrait of those on the down and out. Each story in this collection left me feeling deep and thoughtful. The imagery is heart-breaking, humorous, poignant, maddening, eerie. Together the stories create an image of place so vivid that it makes me forget I have spent almost every summer of my life there and makes me believe that Rash's portrait of the region is the one and only.
The stories are divided into two parts which have no title, but the halves seem to be: "those who live there" and "those who left." The first half hosts stories about poverty-stricken farmers during the depression, meth addicts, poor modern townies, and depression, and shows a place that was struggling to survive, and is now struggling to die. The second half shows the effects on the people who have left: a WWII soldier returning home after killing a man; an old man arrested when returning to his family farm - now a National Park - to dig ginseng; a hillbilly who slashes his wife's tires when she returns to school; an Engineer who's left the region but can't let go of his folk beliefs; a depressed musician playing horrid dives in California; and the wife of a Union soldier during the Civil War.
Death, dying, depression, poverty, and ghosts haunt the whole collection and create a really honest picture of a dying region. I found this book beautiful and compelling even though all my family is from the area. And Rash isn't wrong, exactly. There's a lot of poverty there, no doubt a lot of drugs, and indeed depression. People there do fight to survive, and they probably always have. The Civil War left a deep scar in the Appalachians, as it did in much of the South.
My biggest problem with the book is that it's an excessively one-sided look at the area. If death, drugs, poverty, and depression were really all the region had to offer then everyone from there would be on meth, be gone, or be dead. And they're not. Nowhere does Rash even hint at the fried food, large families, and boring relatives listing out who's related to whom and how for the umpteenth time, quilting, singing on the porch stoop, etc. There are, in fact, a lot of happy people there. And unlike Rash's modern engineer who cannot straddle the worlds of Appalachia and Academia, I have several relatives who are equally comfortable dining on moonshine and mountain oysters or lecturing in Ivory Towers.
I recommend this collection to any connoisseur of short stories or regional writing, to anyone who likes the eerie or macabre. It's a good book; just keep in mind that Rash's isn't the only Appalachia.
This review was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the February 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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