The Cove by Ron Rash
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.
Ed. note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, was published in February, 2012. Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish New York home, but his adulthood led him on a secular path. In an interview with Book Browse, he said, “If it weren’t for fear of God’s instantaneous and violent retribution, I’d declare myself an atheist.” Nevertheless, among his talents is the ability to make Judaism, the Holocaust, faith, loss of faith, family, love, and growing up in and out of religion both heartbreaking and hilarious. As a religious person myself, I am deeply moved by these characters’ struggles with and embracing of cultural and spiritual traditions. The title story in particular is a trifle of one-time pot-smoking adults until it’s very much not, and packs a gut punch in the last lines. I also loved “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and “Sister Hills” for similar reasons, and for their settings in Israel and Palestine. “Camp Sundown” is a darkly comic tale of old people at a leisure summer camp until it takes a turn that illustrates some profound and deep wounds. Overall this collection is incredibly strong.
I also greatly admire Englander’s beautiful prose, like this from “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” about locating dead relatives in a cemetery: “When you find your star and see the toasted-sand warmness of the name, you feel, in the strangest way, as if you’re being received as much as you’re there to pay tribute.”
If it’s frowned-upon to “trade” on the Holocaust, as some criticism of his stories seems to imply, I give Englander credit here for its every mention looming large over every character, and sometimes informing their actions in very meaningful ways.
Note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.