Crime fiction set in Appalachia has grown so prolific, it has spawned its own genre known as Appalachian noir, or its ruder cousin, hillbilly noir. Recent entries in the canon include Georgia author Brian Panowich’s “Hard Cash Valley” and “When These Mountains Burn” by David Joy from North Carolina.
Some reviewers lump in New York Times bestselling author Ron Rash, perhaps even suggesting he’s a pioneer of the genre, considering his age and output. The 66-year-old South Carolina native has written seven novels, six short-story collections, four poetry collections, a children’s book and a new novella called “In the Valley” (Doubleday, $26.95)
Not to denigrate those reviewers or the genre, I contend that assessment is incorrect. Rash belongs to the loftier realm of literary fiction. Drugs may be sold and guns may be flashed, but that is not the raison d’être of his complex tales of human failings and triumphs set mostly in the hills of western North Carolina. The conflicts in his narratives are more nuanced than good versus evil. Sacrifice, revenge, redemption and small acts of humanity play out to heart-wrenching effects in his hands.
“In the Valley” is a compact, devastating return to the place and time of Rash’s most well-known and beloved novel, “Serena.” Published in 2008 and made into a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, “Serena” centers around a logging operation run by a ruthless, ambitious woman in 1929 North Carolina.
The same motivation that compelled him to write it prompted him to write “In the Valley,” Rash told me in a telephone conversation last week.
“We’ve got so many things to worry about that we forget about environmental issues, but there are a lot of threats right now nationwide as far as wilderness areas and fisheries are concerned. And I wanted to address that,” he said. “Part of the impulse for writing ‘Serena’ in the first place was my fears of what might happen to the national forest. I thought it might be a book that showed how hard-won (the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) was and also how easily it could be lost.”
At the end of the novel, Serena and her henchman Galloway depart for Brazil. An epilogue jumps 40 years into the future and recounts what eventually became of them. “In the Valley” is a self-contained story that dwells in that time between the book’s end and the epilogue. Those who haven’t read “Serena” can still follow and appreciate the novella, which is told from the perspective of the loggers.
At the forefront is the character of Ross, a logger whose wife and children were killed by the Spanish flu.
“In ‘Serena’ he’s a very minor character. We don’t really get to know him,” said Rash. “I always felt with him, there was a story that he held. Ross had haunted me. I wanted to find his story and tell it.”
The result is a thrilling return to that indelible, cut-throat world of “Serena” and a shocking reminder that all acts of violence are not borne of evil. It also answers some questions that lingered at the end of “Serena.”
In addition to the novella, “In the Valley” includes nine shorts stories that range from the Civil War era to contemporary times. Sacrifice is a common thread.
“When I was deciding which stories to put in this book, I found myself putting in stories about people in really tough situations, but who really fought bravely against it, who did the honorable thing, who showed courage,” said Rash. “I think there’s a kind of hard-won optimism in some of the stories in the sense that there are people who try to rise to the occasion.”
The opener, “Neighbors,” illustrates the storied “brother against brother” conflict of the Civil War.
“I hope the first story reflects our fragmented country,” said Rash. “It’s a cautionary tale of where we don’t want to go.”
A young widow living in a community of Union sympathizers is confronted by a Confederate colonel who orders his men to pillage her meager assets and burn down her barn until he discovers a secret she harbors. Fear that her neighbors will learn the truth supersedes her fear of being ransacked by the soldiers.
“I think sometimes writing about the past is subversive because the reader seems to think this is such a different world, and I hope there’s a moment when the reader kind of realizes it’s a possibility in our world,” he said. “‘Neighbors’ is not about civil war; it’s about tribalism and the cost of it.”Other notable stories include “L’homme Blessé,” about a grieving art professor who discovers a kindred spirit in a traumatized war veteran who lived out his life sequestered in a bedroom where he’d covered the walls with reproductions of ancient cave paintings. In “Last Bridge Burned,” a convenience store clerk is inconvenienced by an inebriated woman who years later expresses her appreciation in a public and unexpected way.
Revenge is also a common theme. In “The Baptism,” a wicked man gets a surprising comeuppance when he demands a preacher wash away his sins.
“One thing I’m not is a sentimental writer,” said Rash. “I try to show the world as it is. I view myself more as a witness than an advocate. I try to show the complexity of humans. And I have to acknowledge that dark side, that unforgiving side and that sense of injustice that might drive people to acts of vengeance.”
Ultimately, though, “In the Valley,” as a whole, promises a small glimmer of hope for humanity, and that’s something we could use a dose of right now.
“In a time like this, we find out the best and worst about people,” said Rash. “William Faulkner once said that most people were a little bit better than their circumstances ought to allow. I like that kind of guarded optimism.”
By Suzanne Van Atten
Published Sept. 11, 2020, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution