BookBrowse Reviews In the Valley by Ron Rash

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In the Valley

Stories and a Novella Based on Serena

by Ron Rash

In the Valley by Ron Rash X
In the Valley by Ron Rash
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 240 pages

    Jul 2021, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kelly Hydrick
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About this Book



Set from the Civil War era to the present day, these tales are brutal character studies that evoke the specificity of Appalachia while illuminating life's perennial struggles.

Ron Rash's short story collection In the Valley features ten tales set in the southern Appalachian region (see Beyond the Book). This is the first time I've read anything by Rash, and I'll be adding his other works to my reading list. Ranging from the Civil War era, to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, to the 2008 financial crisis, the stories meander between time periods while always maintaining a feeling of Appalachian space and place. Rash writes varied, fully realized human beings with distinct backstories using efficient, nuanced prose.

Often, the stories hinge on what is left unsaid, or what is said only at the very end. In "Sad Man in the Sky," a sightseeing helicopter pilot has a strange encounter with a remorseful man who wants to give his ex-girlfriend's kids presents by dropping them from the air. The pilot flies him over a house perched on a mountaintop, where two children run smiling toward the helicopter. In a final, revelatory sentence, Rash completely changes our reading of the story and provides the key to understanding the man in the sky.

In a nod to the Southern Gothic style, there is an undercurrent of malice flowing just below the surface in most of the narratives. "Ransom," for example, plays with the idea of violence in an unexpected way. Jennifer, the daughter of a wealthy drug company executive, is kidnapped from her university campus, an undeniably violent act. But instead of physically harming the young woman, her kidnapper explains, "I've kidnapped you, and once the ransom is paid, you'll be set free. I'll make you as comfortable as I can. Your parents will pay and then it will be done. Okay?" During the ordeal, her shoulder has been dislocated, and the man brings her food, water and "something for the pain." To ease her fears about taking an unknown pill, he shows her the bottle, a medication from her father's company. As we wait with Jennifer for her parents to pay, we learn that her kidnapper had a daughter about her age who passed away, information that she knows is important, although she's not sure how to use it. In the build-up to an amazing twist ending, Rash skillfully obscures the distinction between victim and villain.

At more than half the length of the book, the final story in the collection, "In the Valley," is more of a novella. The eponymous character from Rash's earlier novel Serena features here in a secondary role alongside her one-handed strongman, anti-union Pinkerton guards, an old, shriveled witch and a varied cast of loggers working to clear-cut a mountain by an impossible deadline. Thanks to Serena's ruthless business acumen, time ceases to exist for the beleaguered loggers, and a tale of fate and revenge slowly reveals itself. Part fairy-tale, part murder-mystery, part climate fiction, this story defies categorization. Between the human-focused sections, Rash inserts poignant and prescient asides detailing the environmental impact of the logging, which has transformed the valley into "a wasteland leveled by ax and saw." All of the animals leave one by one, first the bears and cougars, then the fish as the river silts up, followed by the salamanders, turtles and snakes, until only "thousands upon thousands of stumps" remain.

After finishing In the Valley, I was left with a delicious feeling of having survived. Rash's narratives provide just enough detail to pull you in, tumble you around a bit and fling you out the other side. The stories are dark, but realistic, and I felt like I was wandering for a while among the echoing blue hills of the Appalachians.

Reviewed by Kelly Hydrick

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2020, and has been updated for the August 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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