As I drive around North Carolina and see falling-down, decrepit barns and homes, I try to imagine the lives that once occupied them, before the highway went two feet in front of the door and before they became splintered shells.
North Carolina native Ron Rash’s new novel, The Cove, tells a thrilling story of one of those farms, discovered by a present-day government worker in the prologue, long-abandoned and full of mystery. Two adult orphaned siblings live and farm on a piece of land near the end of World War I, in a dark and damp cove near Mars Hill, North Carolina. Laurel and Hank Shelton have more than their share of troubles and only a handful of friends between them, and Rash captures the taciturn, all-business characteristics of Western North Carolina people and culture with great aplomb. Laurel dreams of much more than her life as a farm matron, but she’s surrounded by superstition and judgment that severely limits her ambition. When a mute stranger appears on their land needing medical attention, Laurel and Hank’s lives are set on a course with dire consequences.
The chapters alternate between life in the cove and in Mars Hill, with a jingoistic army recruiter named Chauncey Feith, who seeks the town’s approval even as they mock him behind his back. His ambitions and extreme pride collide with the Sheltons in the climax. If the novel has a flaw, I found the initial Chauncey chapters a little slow, though the hard look at the prejudice and fear surrounding the “enemy” at wartime was interesting and well-developed. Like any small town with lost and injured soldiers, the shared tragedy leads to all levels of fear and ambivalence towards a collection of civilian Germans being held prisoner nearby. Rash handles the exploration of a far-away war with local consequences quite deftly.
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