September 23, 2019

Serena by Ron Rash

I’ll be reading more by Ron Rash (though perhaps not for this challenge)! One reviewer on Goodreads quipped that Ron Rash’s novel Serena is “like Macbeth in a logging community, with a Greek chorus,” and I kept coming back to that description as I read–especially in the Greek chorus bits! I was also reminded of the comedic film classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its relation to Homer’s Odyssey. There is very little that’s funny in Serena, though.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or those where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are in North Carolina right now.

This one won’t be my favorite for showcasing North Carolina, but it is a good one for our challenge in many ways. It starts in 1929 and covers the first several years of the Depression (mostly as backdrop, as the number of job seekers and hobos swells). The fight to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is a storyline in the book, and we get bits and pieces of that story, though only from the point of view of the logging and mining industry who were against it.

“There were seven thousand more [acres] east of Waynesville that we’ve already logged.” “And to the west, Champion Paper owns that?” “All the way to the Tennessee line,” Pemberton said. “That’s the land they’re after for the park?” Pemberton nodded. “And if Champion sells, they’ll be coming after our land next.” “But we’ll not let them have it,” Serena said. “No, at least not until we’re done with it. Harris, our local copper and kaolin magnate, was at the meeting I told you about, and he made clear he’s against this national park scheme as much as we are.

This site has some good information about the real life history of the park, including several of the historical figures who appear briefly in Rash’s book. Horace Kephart was a real person, though perhaps not the Appalachian John Muir figure he’s portrayed as. He is featured briefly in Ken Burns’ multi-part documentary about the National Parks.

We also get some lovely descriptions of the mountains and the life within them–flora and fauna–but many of those descriptions are also from the point of view of the people cutting down the trees–types of trees, descriptions of clear-cut mountainsides (often with notes by the timber barons of how proud they are of their accomplishments). Or descriptions of the lush, prolific mountain laurels and dogwoods–with a note that “hopefully” someday soon there will be a way to kill off this useless underbrush to make log hauling easier. Or descriptions that show the poverty of the area or a general condescension toward the mountain people on the part of outsiders like Serena and Pemberton*:

They were soon out of Waynesville, the land increasingly mountainous, less inhabited, the occasional slant of pasture like green felt woven to a rougher fabric. Almost full summer now, Pemberton realized, the dogwood’s white blossoms withered on the ground, the hardwood’s branches thickened green. They passed a cabin, in the side yard a woman drawing water from a well. She wore no shoes and the towheaded child beside her wore pants cinched tight by twine.

Rash is rather heavy-handed at times–we have a hunting scene where the timber executives shoot a group of a dozen or so deer that have been lured by a pile of corn and that don’t even look up at the humans’ approach; then they leave the carcasses piled in the clearing, their usefulness gone with the “sport” of killing them. And there are numerous descriptions of the many and varied ways in which the loggers of the era died (apart from the murders)–much of which becomes fodder for the Greek chorus.

With the character of Serena herself, Rash also seems to be hitting us over the head with the idea of would we object so much to her behavior if she were a man? She is hard, cold, and calculating, her motives entirely selfish, and, for a while, we struggle with the question–at what point does her behavior become reprehensible no matter her gender?

The problem I have with this is that the question of her morals is tangled up, part and parcel, with her gender-bending behaviors. Unfortunately, that means the question also becomes one of whether she becomes a cold, hard murderer because of wanting to be seen as the equal of a man? If she were more feminine would she still be as evil? Lady Macbeth wasn’t dressing up in armor and fighting alongside her husband (of course she also showed remorse and eventually was no longer able to live with what she and her husband had done).

And, of course, there is also the question of her “failure” at becoming a mother. We are primed to feel sympathy for her, and yet we can’t picture Serena as a mother. Another example of her not being a “real woman.” She’s seen as “unnatural” because of the way she dresses and acts, and then her miscarriage is seen as confirmation, as are the murders and other cold-hearted behaviors.

The Macbeth comparison the book garners is apt–we even have a prophesy of death from a witch. In this case it is the husband not the lady who (only briefly) gives in to his remorse, but there are other parallels–mainly the egging each other on as they need to kill more and more people to maintain their power. But there are other parallels than the obvious–Galloway is often compared to a dog or his behavior described in terms we would use to describe a dog, which is reminiscent of Macbeth’s remonstrance to the murderers about what kind of dogs/men they are.

At first, the idea of having Pemberton and Rachel’s son come back years later and kill Serena evokes the idea of Banquo’s sons becoming kings, but it mostly seemed out of place to me. Yes, there’s a rough justice to it, but I’d have been more satisfied if she’d been killed by the forest–something along the lines of the orcs being devoured by Fangorn–a little supernatural twist. But while there is some sense of justice, there’s no basis to the idea that Rachel raised her son to despise the woman who was responsible for so much pain and death. She never seemed to harbor any real animosity toward Serena, even during her flight or on learning of the Widow’s death.

But maybe Macbeth isn’t the inspiration? Or at least not solely? Rash’s Greek chorus is one clue. The men of Snipes’ gang give us a bit of comic relief, which is sorely needed, but their anonymity was frustrating for me until I remembered the Greek chorus comparison and realized we aren’t supposed to get to know them separately as individuals–their function is as a group. They show us that the locals were aware of the undercurrents–much more so than the bosses gave them credit for understanding, like this description of the clear-cut land by a veteran of World War I:

Snipes, who’d listened attentively but without comment, put on his glasses and looked out over the valley. “Looks like that land over in France once them in charge let us quit fighting. Got the same feeling about it too.” “What kind of feeling?” Henryson asked. “Like there’s been so much killed and destroyed it can’t ever be alive again. Even for them that wasn’t around when it happened, it’d lay heavy on them too. It’d be like trying to live in a graveyard.”

Serena herself gives us the vital clue in a quote, “Myself will grip the sword–yea though I die.” Rash doesn’t tell us where the quote comes from; Pemberton doesn’t recognize it and Serena doesn’t enlighten him, or us. But unlike in 1929, it’s relatively easy for us to Google the words and come up with the source: Euripides’ play Medea. In fact, in reading the Wikipedia page covering Medea, I came across this, which gives us several important parallels between the two women:

… highlight Medea’s skill and determination in manipulating powerful male figures to achieve her own ends. The play is also the only Greek tragedy in which a kin-killer makes it unpunished to the end of the play, and the only one about child-killing in which the deed is performed in cold blood as opposed to in a state of temporary madness (Hall, Edith. 1997. “Introduction” in Medea: Hippolytus ; Electra ; Helen Oxford University Press. pp. ix–xxxv.)

Serena shares Medea’s skill at manipulating powerful males, she makes it far past the end of the main storyline without reprisal for her actions, and is shown as unemotional and coldly logical throughout–not at all a hysterical female overtaken by a fit of madness. We can easily believe that, had she found the child that night, she would have killed him herself in her usual efficient manner.

Apparently there was a 2015 movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper… I’m not sure how I missed that… all I can say is that it’s been a rough few years for my family. Maybe it was dismissed from my mind because it was roundly panned by both critics and the public. But I’m not sure I’ll watch the movie anyway–for me I think it’ll depend on how the filmmakers dealt with the Greek chorus. I’ll need that little bit of deadpanned comedy to be able to deal with the couple’s total disregard for anyone other than themselves and anything other than their profits.

Overall, I loved the snippets we got of the forest and the mountains and the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I feel Serena was a decent read for our challenge. Ron Rash is a talented writer, and I really enjoyed his use of the classics to tell this story. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future. We definitely got bits of the geography, history and people of western North Carolina, making it worthy of our list, though the setting didn’t sing the way it did in Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks. We’ll be continuing on with our North Carolina reads soon.

*Just a note that Pemberton is apparently called George in the movie, but we are never told his given name in the book. I saw a number of reviews that called him George Pemberton and was confused enough to search the text of my e-book–the name George did not come from the book. He’s only ever called by his surname Pemberton.