Ron Rash believes that “almost all of the great books are regional books.” What, he asks, “could be more regional than James Joyce’s Ulysses,” which unfolds during a 24-hour ramble through Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904?
So Rash bristles—in a modest, gentlemanly sort of way—when people use the word regional to pigeonhole, diminish or dismiss fiction like his, which roots itself in a particular place—Appalachia, and especially western North Carolina, where his family has lived since the 1700s.
“It’s an important issue to me because I think there’s a difference between regional and local color,” Rash says during a call to his office at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina. “Local color is writing that is only about difference—what makes this particular place exotic. Regional writing is writing that shows what is distinct about a place—its language, culture and all of that—yet at the same time says something universal. Eudora Welty says it better than I can. She says that one place understood helps us understand all other places better. That’s been a credo for me. I think that if you go deep enough into one place, you hit the universal.”
A point in his argument’s favor? Ron Rash’s novels, especially his recent bestseller Serena, are popular in France. He’s been invited to read his fiction in places as far away as Australia and New Zealand. His books sell well in China. And his short stories and novels have been nominated for national, not just regional, awards.
Still, there is his sense of loyalty to his place of origin. On a 10-city book tour in France, for example, Rash, a charming storyteller with a strong regional accent, remembers that “they had me go to a local high school, I think partly [so students] could hear an American speaker. The first thing I told them was not to imitate me; they certainly would not be understood in New York City if they sounded like me!”
"Landscape is destiny. The environment you grow up in has to have some kind of effect on how you perceive the world."
A regional setting and universal themes are definitely hallmarks of Rash’s atmospheric new novel, The Cove. Set in the small western North Carolina town of Mars Hill at the end of the First World War, The Cove uses a little-known historical incident as a stepping-off point for a haunting narrative about intolerance and redemptive but illicit love.
“Obviously I love to read about the region’s history,” says Rash, who is the first person to hold the endowed Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies Chair at WCU. “But a few years ago I was doing some research and I was amazed to find that [there had been] a German internment camp near where I live in western North Carolina during [World War I]. And this camp was not for POWs. It was for German civilians who happened to be marooned in the United States when the United States entered the war. That was fascinating to me. And it became even more fascinating to me when I started reading about the Vaterland, which was the biggest ship in the world at that time and was much more elegant than the Titanic, and these guys who ended up in Hot Springs [North Carolina] had been on the Vaterland.”
Then Rash read an account of the internment camp that mentioned in passing the fact that one and only one German prisoner had ever escaped. “Wow! I thought, boy, what I can do with that. To me there was just this incredible story here that even a lot of people in the region did not know about. At the same time, because of some things that were happening in the United States, contemporary issues, I thought there were interesting connections.”
But Rash, who customarily writes between 12 and 14 drafts before completing a novel—usually while sitting in front of his fireplace with his two dogs at his feet—could not get his story of a German escapee to fly. Not, that is, until he realized that the real emotional center of his book was Laurel Shelton, a young woman who has lived all her life in a sheltered cove near Mars Hill and who longs to escape from a life blighted by the superstitious beliefs and confining scorn of most of her neighbors. Her dilemma threatens to split her apart from her brother Hank, who has returned to the family’s hardscrabble farm in the deep shadows of the Appalachian mountains after being wounded in the war.
“To me,” Rash says, explaining his intense interest in describing the ghostly place in which his characters rise and fall, “landscape is always a character. And I would say the cove itself, the landscape, is in some ways as dominant a character as any other character. . . . It’s hard for me to completely articulate but to me it’s like landscape is destiny. The environment you grow up in has to have some kind of effect on how you perceive the world. I would argue that The Great Gatsby could only have been written by a Midwesterner because the kind of expansiveness Gatsby could imagine fits a Midwestern sensibility; looking out on this endless expanse gives you a sense of endless possibility. The same might be true of someone who was born at the ocean. But if you live in mountains—I’ve seen this in my own family—two things can happen. One is that you feel protected by the mountains, almost like it’s a womb that protects you from the outside world. But the other thing that can happen is that the lack of light does something physically to people who live in a cove. There’s always a sense of your smallness, your puniness and insignificance compared to these mountains that have been here millions of years and loom over you. The result can be the kind of fatalism I saw even in my own family. I think The Cove is my strongest attempt to show that.”
Though based on historical research and set almost 100 years ago, The Cove is artfully layered with Rash’s concerns about the present. One of his most persistent concerns is how easily we turn other people into enemies and go to war against them. In a remarkable way, The Cove dramatizes a hope that loving, reasonable sensibilities will prevail—and a fear of the tragic consequences if they do not.
“I don’t want to be a propagandist, but I hope the reader senses that this is in the story. Certainly there are questions of what it really means to be patriotic, what it means to go to war. You kind of lay it out there and let the reader make the connections or not.”
Then Rash returns the conversation to his interest in discovering the continuities of past, present and future. While researching his previous novel, he reports with delight, he discovered that the house he owns about three miles from the WCU campus had been in his family roughly 230 years ago. And the future? Well, he says with some pride, like his wife and himself, his 24-year-old daughter and 22-year-old son have chosen to become teachers. “At least we didn’t run them off from the profession.”
CORRECTION: Updated to reflect the fact that the setting of Mars Hills is an actual town in North Carolina, not a fictional one.