Author Ron Rash hails from the hills of North Carolina and is the chair of Appalachian studies at Western Carolina University so it is no surprise that his novels are steeped in the culture of the Smoky Mountains. Rash’s star is on the rise; an earlier book, Serena, is being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and his latest book, The Cove, made the NYT bestsellers list.
In The Cove, Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live in a gloomy cove outside rural Mars Hill, North Carolina. Their homestead is considered cursed after the untimely deaths of their parents and Laurel, born with a purple birthmark covering her shoulder, is marked as a witch and shunned by the superstitious townspeople. Laurel hopes Hank takes a wife, as a sister-in-law will ease her loneliness. Instead, Laurel finds an injured mute flutist named Walter in the woods and as the Sheltons shelter Walter, a relationship blossoms between the two. At the same time, the Mars Hill residents are infected by the prevailing anti-German sentiment generated by WWI and the hysteria threatens to spill over into the cove even as Laurel begins to suspect Walter of harboring a dangerous secret.
Rash’s intimate knowledge of the Appalachian people shines through in this book and he often weaves fact and fiction together. Mars Hill and its college are real, as were the Vaterland cruise ship and the beautiful but hunted to extinction Carolina parakeet. The narrative is rich with colloquial speech, the main characters are well-developed with Laurel especially written well, and the story unfolds in Southern Gothic tradition as a stonecutter quoting Gray’s Elegy says “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Readers who appreciate books set in the mountains of the American south might also enjoy author Sharyn McCrumb.