Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Ron Rash

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories set in North Carolina. The various accents of the readers enhanced the verisimilitude of the characters and their environment. Rash was recommended to me by Jake when I visited Asheville recently to do a reading at the marvelous Firestorm Café and Books. Like many before me, I fell in love with the town and its plethora of interesting and active people. I also fell in love with the mountains, or rather renewed my old love affair with these quiet giants. Rash's stories illuminate the lives of people hidden away in these hollows and remote towns.

What makes these stories so powerful is the way he goes so deeply into the characters. While the plots often take surprising turns, you won't find slick tricks here, just good, strong story-telling. The folks who populate them are so thoroughly imagined and so carefully presented that I feel I know each and every one of them.

I was most delighted by “A Servant of History”, an account of an Englishman named Wilson, sent by the “English Folk Dance and Ballad Society” across the Atlantic to collect folksongs. Modeled on Cecil Sharp, the famous English song collector, Wilson's goal is to find unadulterated versions of English folksongs and ballads preserved in the isolated hollows of the Appalachians. In 1915 Sharp, met Olive Dame Campbell who had collected hundreds of Appalachian folksongs and ballads. He wrote in a “letter”:, “Mrs. John C Campbell of Asheville, NC told me that the inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians were still singing the traditional songs and ballads which their English and Scottish ancestors had brought out with them at the time of their emigration.” In the story, Wilson is led to an elderly woman, Mrs. MacDonald, and he uses their common Scottish heritage—his mother is Scots—to persuade her to sing for him. Being a MacDonald myself, I knew what was coming but relished it all the same.

The stories range across the centuries. I was most touched by a story about two escaped slaves who stumble into a barn on an isolated farm for shelter during the night, the older one counseling the boy on how to approach the farmer in the morning. And by a story of a young man, having made it out of his dead-end town, returns from his freshman year at college to find his high school girlfriend using her chemistry skills in a meth lab.

I think the best story is the first one, “The Trusty”, about a prisoner trusted enough to be assigned the task of fetching water for a chain gang building a road. When he reaches the farmhouse, he asks the wary young woman for permission to draw from the well. They can see her much-older husband working in a far-off field. His slow seduction of her and what comes after gave me a frisson I feel all too rarely, that of a story well told. I look forward to reading more of Rash's work.

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