The 150-word Review: Tennyson wrote, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” to evoke the merciless indifference of the natural world—the violent struggle for survival among animals. It would’ve also been an apt description of Serena Pemberton, the title character in Ron Rash’s historical novel, Serena, whose drive to impose her will on nature, fueled by unrepentant ambition and greed, cuts a swath through the Appalachian highlands and enemies alike.
Although Serena’s villainy serves as the narrative center for Ron Rash’s historical and ecological tragedy, it is the glimpses into the lives of those around her that give the novel its remarkable heft. From George Pemberton, her vain and weak-willed husband; to the superstitious cutting crew, whose folksy banter pushes the plot forward like a Greek chorus; to the teenaged mother of Pemberton’s illegitimate son, whose determined struggle to protect her child from Serena’s wrath serves as a counterpoint to her ruthless single-mindedness.
You will like this book if you’re a fan of: Lady Macbeth, John Muir, Appalachia, lumberjacks, southern gothic, laissez-faire capitalism, one-armed assassins, nascent environmentalism, rugged self-determination, Greek choruses, blind clairvoyants, and just desserts.
Cliff Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Ron Rash is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.