It's possible that human nature can be distilled down to two basic elements: love and hatred, and the species would never have survived this long without their absolute balance. The setting for Ron Rash's The Cove - World War I, in the heart of the isolated, backwoods of Appalachia - provides a perfect medium for acting out human drama, pitting these two elements against each other.
When threatened, the townspeople of Mars Hill draw closer to what is theirs and to what feels familiar, while misfits and outcasts orbit outside. In this case, they've chosen to center their hatred on the obvious enemy - the Germans. But, as inevitably happens in times of war, innocents get caught up with the guilty. War is suffering, and not just on the battlefield. Rash makes this theme very plain through violence committed against regular people who suddenly have to justify themselves for not meshing with the majority or for resembling "the enemy" a little too closely.
Hank and Laurel - the surviving members of the Shelton family - are two such people. Their parents had the misfortune of settling on a parcel of land located beneath an outcropping of rock - a dark, mysterious "cove," said by local legend to be haunted. The superstition is based on irrational fear caused by a series of unrelated happenings, but stories are handed down from generation to generation until legend becomes fact. And people, like Hank and Laurel, who stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time are seen as transgressors. It is convenient for the townspeople to associate the Sheltons with all the bad things that occur in everyday life.
As much-needed relief, there's the consolation of love, as these two victims turn anger and hatred into compassion and empathy. Knowing they've been wronged, they choose to stop the cycle and find a way to be happy. Without these hopeful characters, The Cove could have been an unrelentingly depressing novel. Instead, Rash creates a sort of balance, allowing basically good people to cross paths with each other. These inherently decent characters value peace and family, hoping hard work and dedication to building their lives will eventually result in a truce with the community, if an uneasy one. The alternative is a life spent bracing for the next volley, one hardly worth living.
One reason Rash's novel packs such a punch is that its themes are, like love and hatred, timeless. You could take the basic plot structure of The Cove and place it anywhere, at anytime, and it would still be relevant to modern readers. But it's not only the framework of his novel that makes it such a good read. Rash's characters aren't stereotypical. They breathe life into the story and give the structural skeleton its flesh. The overall product is a complete work of literary fiction which, though not without flaws, simply tells a damn good tale in language that's satisfyingly rich and well-suited to the more serious tone of the book.
By the end of The Cove, it's up to the reader to decide who wins, whether the right people fall on their swords or if justice is served. Through the good and the bad, the love and hate, the only guarantee is life will carry on.
This review was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the November 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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