Deep in the mountains, outside the small Carolina town of Mars Hill, there's a hidden cove. You approach it by walking past Slidell's farmhouse and then going down a trail past a tree hung with bottles that clink like wind chimes, crunching old salt licks and broken glass underfoot. You pass through a grove of dead chestnut trees and find another farmhouse, standing alone amid fields starved of sunshine by the granite overhang.
Ron Rash is expert at summoning up a sense of place, selecting just the right details to convey his story's mood, here one of isolated beauty shadowed by implacable rock.
A brother and sister live in the lonely farmhouse: Hank, who lost a hand in the war—World War I—and Laurel. Hank's service and sacrifice have finally made him acceptable to the townspeople. who have long believed that the cove and its inhabitants are cursed. Their forbearance doesn't extend to Laurel, whom they still believe to be a witch because she has a birthmark. She has been forced out of school and is shunned when she goes into town. Only Slidell—who has his own quarrel with the people of Mars Hill—has stood by the pair.
From the farmhouse, Laurel takes a path down to the pond where she washes clothes and spreads them to dry on the rocks, one of her favorite places because it is blessed by a spot of sunshine. Working there one day, she hears birdsong, one she doesn't recognise. Following the sound she discovers a boy dressed in tatters playing a flute, playing so beautifully that it seems almost unearthly. The boy, Walter, along with Laurel and Hank are the core of this story of superstition and prejudice and love and loyalty.
Their story is only too relevant to today's society where preconceptions and self-serving distortions of the truth feed fear and anger, which in turn make us lash out at the perceived enemy—so conveniently “other”—and keep us from recognising our common humanity.
Rash has given us yet another gripping story, set in the past but speaking to our present. I particularly appreciate the directness of his sentences. Though seemingly simple, they feel freighted with meaning. Cumulatively they set up the expectation of a story told well and with great control, so the slightest hint of lyricism becomes take-your-breath-away powerful.
I found Rash's stories strong, but sometimes short story writers trip over the long form of a novel. Not Rash. This novel displays all the gifts of pacing and surprise that I found in his stories. He has another novel, Serena, which is currently being made into a film, so I will add that to my to-be-read pile.
Do you prefer to read books before seeing the film? Are there any films that you thought more successful than the books on which they were based?