Wednesday, April 25, 2012
THE COVE By Ron Rash
Ron Rash is an exemplary writer, surely one of the finest at work in our generation. He has an extraordinary sense of place, so beautifully realized and so powerful that the place itself becomes a major character in this haunting novel.
The place is a small bit of farmland deep in the North Carolina hills. The time is 1918 close to the end of World War I. Laurel Shelton lives on this meager farm with her brother, Hank, who returned from the war less one hand. She is lonely and beautiful, a young woman branded a witch because of a purple birthmark. Even the cove itself is considered haunted by the townspeople of Mars Hill. First ridiculed by classmates and then shunned by adults Laurel holds out little hope for happiness yet labors on beside her brother because that is all she knows to do.
And then the day comes when she is in the woods and believes she hears a bird song. However, this song does not end so she follows it until on the other side of a thicket she sees a man sitting with his back against a tree, “eyes closed as his fingers skipped across a silver flute.”
She returns each day to listen to the song until she finds the man “shivering on a pallet of leaves, his face bright as fireweed,” the victim of a horde of bees. She manages to drag him back to the cabin where she nurses him back to health. He carries a note explaining that his name is Walter, and he is mute. Hank would prefer not to have a stranger in their house, but changes his mind when Walter turns out to be an able farmhand.
Hank has made plans to marry, and now it seems that perhaps Laurel has found someone to love and who loves her. But Walter has not been entirely candid with them, while in Mars Hill a vacuous, posturing, ambitious army recruiter, Chauncey Feith, is instilling hatred and fear of the Germans into the minds of the townsfolk.
As one reads it becomes clear that the denouement is inevitable; the story is heartbreaking but true. Yet, we are also aware that whatever happens is not due to witchcraft or a curse but simply the result of very human frailties - ignorance, hatred, and prejudice. The Cove will not be forgotten.