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Serena

A Novel

by Ron Rash

Serena
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • Published in USA  Oct 2009
    384 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Power Reviewer Cloggie Downunder (11/03/14)

a brilliant novel
“…the work bell rang. The men left so quickly their cast-down forks and spoons seemed to retain a slight vibration, like pond water rippling after a splash”

Serena is the fourth novel by American author, Ron Rash. The mountains of North Carolina in the early 1930s were the scene of competing land grabs: timber getters like George Pemberton who were determined to make their fortunes clear-felling the slopes; miners like Harris who stripped the denuded land of its minerals; and the government, funded by wealthy patrons like Rockerfeller and Vanderbilt, committed to creating National Parks. Logging in this remote wilderness presented many hazards but the Depression ensured that labour was cheap and plentiful.

It is against this background that Rash sets the story of Serena, newly wed to Pemberton and intent on proving herself equal to any worker in this dangerous place. From the first she shows herself to be extremely capable, but also single-minded, calculating, fiercely possessive and completely ruthless. When she perceives a threat to her business or her marriage, she acts without hesitation, fear or favour. The story is told from three perspectives: George Pemberton, thoroughly enthralled by Serena; sixteen-year-old Rachel Harmon, mother of a son to Pemberton; and foreman Snipes, gauging the mood of his crew of sawyers and offering perceptive comments on their suspicions & superstitions.

Rash gives the reader an original plot, a story that ticks along steadily, eliciting occasional gasps at Serena’s despicable actions, until it builds to a gripping climax. His characters are multi-faceted; he includes many interesting historical facts and his love of the North Carolina landscape and the mountain dwellers is apparent in the wonderful descriptive prose: “The land’s angle became more severe, the light waning, streaked as if cut with scissors and braided to the ridge piece by piece” and “… the land increasingly mountainous, less inhabited, the occasional slant of pasture like green felt woven to a rougher fabric” are two examples.

Rash gives his young mother some insightful observations: “…what made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting the small things first, the smell of soap her mother had bathed with…the sound of her mother’s voice….the color of her hair……everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it” and “It struck her how eating was a comfort during a hard time because it reminded you that there had been other days, good days, when you’d eaten the same thing. Reminded you there were good days in life, when precious little else did”

Rash has once again produced a brilliant novel, and his fans will not be disappointed. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this riveting tale.
Ray P. (Selden, NY) (10/11/09)

Serena depicts a mix of beauty and violence.
George and Serena Pemberton are newly married and have made the huge decision to relocate from Boston to North Carolina during the uncertain times of 1929. In an effort to make their mark in the world they dream of building their own timber empire. This is not as easy as it sounds as a couple of "Yankees" are not necessarily accepted in the mountains of the south.

However, George and Serena have a serious mean streak. George's philandering has spawned an illegitimate child and Serena has turned herself into a real "mountain woman" - making them a formidable pair. When Serena learns that she is unable to bear a child - she takes out her pain and frustration on the illegitimate child George fathered. What follows is a battle of blood-lust that turns surprisingly violent.

Ron Rash has penned a classic American saga against the rugged landscape of the N. Carolina Appalachia region that reads like an epic soap opera where each character has much to gain or lose.
Shellie (Book Blogger @ layersofthought, AZ) (10/08/09)

A Thrilling example of American Historical Fiction
I adore a good American Historical novel. Serena is one. The novel has a wonderful flow. It has language and dialog from the era and location, as well as descriptions of the locale. It is believable yet thrilling which kept me thinking about it. The main character is an incredible, complex, and amazing woman. An embodiment of an evil Athena and one of the best dark female characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading about. I would compare Serena with two of my all time favorites of the genre - My Antonia by Willa Cather, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Serena is now included it in that lofty list. All are 5 Star books for me.
Cecile G. (Mansfield, TX) (10/08/09)

Serena
Rash picked a fascinating industry around which to set his novel and he is a brilliant storyteller. Having said that, I would have liked more history of the development of the national parks system and especially the past histories of the characters. I suppose I am drawn to historical fiction and with a little more development this novel could make s a real presence for the logging industry and the parks development. thanks for the opportunity to share this fine work.
Molinda C. (APO, AE) (09/29/09)

Serena
This book was difficult for me to read at first. I knew that something bad was going to happen and I wanted it to happen right then so that the pervasive sense of foreboding could go away. Well, bad things started happening all right. This is a Greek Tragedy set in a logging camp during the Depression. Ron Rash cleverly incorporates the Greek chorus in the body of a logging gang--such an insightful, observant and ultimately impotent group of men have never been more skillfully written.
Marganna K. (Edmonds, WA) (09/26/09)

Serena: Not Believeable
The story is well written, but shallow with a story line that is predictable, not believable and slow. Ron Rash, author, is skilled in language use, description of time and place and weaves interesting history into a shallow story. The first 100 or so pages just didn't seem to go anywhere; then the story picks up the pace. The reason I continued to read it was for the information about the logging, timber, depression era and National Park formation. In that respect, I thought the author had information to portray and did so with skill. It's too bad he used such one-dimensional characters. I felt terrible about the logging and exploitation of workers, beasts and countryside. No, I would not read another book by this author, would not recommend it to friends, didn't care about the individuals and wouldn't replace the book if I lost it unfinished.
Barbara S. (Brick, NJ) (09/24/09)

Not Rash's Best
Serena was not the best of the Ron Rash books. It was a disappointment. Grisham and other authors are also guilty of giving us books not on the par with their first few great reads. In his own words, Rash put a "rusty" on us.

I did enjoy the lingo from that time when he used it and, of course, you knew it because he put it in quotes.

The lack of character development and long, boring glimpses into everyday life added little to the story.

Serena was such an unappetizing character even though he tried to make her unique with the use of the eagle and the horse. Murder came so easy to her but what was she about really?
Shirley F. (Franksville, WI) (09/23/09)

I wanted to like it
I really wanted to like this book which is about Appalachia around the Depression. I enjoyed the descriptions of the area, the mountains and the logging camp. My chief objection is that the characters were not well developed except for Serena and her husband and Rachel Harmon. While Serena and Pemberton were not likable characters, they don't have to be in order for me to appreciate a story, I felt they were consumed by their own greed and ruthlessness. I also felt that the author rushed the ending and I'm not sure if it is entirely believable. It is an American tragedy, but I felt it was less of an epic because of the lack of empathy that I felt for the characters.I hesitate to give the book 3 out of 5 stars and would probably give it 2 1/2.

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