In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on Serena by Ron Rash
My rating: 5/5 cats
“She’s back,” Snipes said, as the men followed the bird’s flight toward the head of the valley. There they saw their employer of three years, a woman who at first had done things no woman they’d ever known would have dared, then later no man.
serena is back. and she is NOT messing around. not only is Serena my favorite ron rash novel, it’s one of my favorite all-time books, because serena herself is a FORCE OF NATURE. which, because it’s 2020, means she’s a fire tornado surrounded by murder hornets. i always shorthand that novel in readers’ advisory interactions to “it’s macbeth in a north carolina depression-era logging community,” but serena makes lady macbeth look like lady bird johnson. and while she’s not a character you can, in good conscience, root for, you dare not look away.
i was, naturally, tempted to skip straight to the serena novella, but then i figured it was the last piece in the book for a reason, so i exercised my power of restraint, anticipating it like dessert.
if the rest of the book was a meal, it was one of those memorable and satisfying ones you recall with deep pleasure for years to come. like any meal, some courses are better than others, and for me, the lima beans of this were Sad Man in the Sky and L’homme Blessé, but even lima beans are tasty when you call ‘em ‘butter beans’ and cook ‘em with plenty of bacon, and ron rash’s prose is a rich and salty bacon trimmed of unsightly fat.
his sense of location is as strong as ever, but no matter where or when these stories take place, their driving forces are universal and demonstrably still part of our yooman experience; whether it’s people abusing their power and screwing over the underclass, exploiting or taking advantage of someone’s ethical code for their own betterment, abusing their wives, making money off the suffering of others, thinking the rules don’t apply to them, hiding damaging personal secrets to avoid persecution etc etc. there’s nothing new under the sun. sometimes there’s comeuppance for bad behavior, but even justice has its price, sprouting emotional burdens for others to carry.
these are stories of transition—whether of characters struggling against the tide of changing value systems or ecological changes arising as human progress takes its toll. it’s not as bleak as it sounds—like the natural world, ron rash appreciates balance, and the best word to describe most of these stories is “bittersweet.” Last Bridge Burned and The Belt are standouts in the bittersweet category, while The Baptism and Flight are slightly less sweet, but my two personal favorites from the short story part of the collection.
and then there’s the Serena novella, revisiting a character written twelve years ago in a story as chilling as it is relevant to our now. i must confess, i started getting anxious towards the middle—events seemed to be heading towards an unwelcome and irremediable conclusion that would diminish everything that made serena such a formidable character. i’m such a dummy. ron rash ain’t no fool, and that final line SLEW ME.
i’d read Serena first, if i were in the business of making suggestions about reading choices, because there’s a lot here that hinges on the events of that excellent novel, but it does technically work as a standalone. you do you.
i will leave you with some real talk about birds, from the story Flight, featuring a different badass female character with an affinity to the ways of ravens:
The name had been bestowed on her last summer at the ranger academy. In nineteenth-century Colorado, the instructor had told them, a woman hoeing in her garden had watched a raven fly toward her, dip low as it passed overhead, and settle a few feet away. The bird performed the same action twice more. Perplexed, the woman looked around the surrounding land. She saw it then, a mountain lion hunched low in the prairie grass. She dropped her hoe and fled, barely reaching the safety of her cabin.
So what have we learned from this story? the instructor had asked. One trainee spoke of the woman’s ability, learned from living close to nature, to interpret the bird’s actions as a warning. Another spoke of the bird’s intelligence, its creation of a way to communicate danger to humans. The instructor waited and Stacy raised her hand for the only time all term. The bird was leading the cougar to prey they could share, she told the instructor. The class was silent but the professor nodded, said Stacy was the first student who’d ever answered correctly.
sometimes, you can be SO excited that a book by one of your all-time favorite authors is coming out, and SO grateful to be given a finished copy AND an e-copy by the publisher pre-release, AND YET SOMEHOW STILL not get a chance to sit down with it until the day after it pubs.
but now, i begin.
new serena pemberton content???