Steve's Reviews > Serena

Serena by Ron Rash
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's review
Jul 20, 12

really liked it
I own a copy

Strong, resourceful young women are enjoying the spotlight these days in popular fiction. There are enough of them that Jennifer Lawrence can’t possibly play them all in movie versions. Serena qualifies for the club with her street smarts (or its Appalachian equivalent), her initiative, and her poise in the face of danger. Too bad she’s also a bloodthirsty, bad-to-the-bone sociopath.

She and her husband George Pemberton are Depression-era timber barons in North Carolina. We’re introduced to them as newlyweds as they got off the train from Boston only to be greeted by a young teenager carrying George’s child along with the girl’s father who had a knife and no mind to negotiate. Serena told the girl she was lucky to have such a sire, but that she wouldn’t be so lucky again. The father wanted to settle matters, and Serena calmly told Pemberton that he should get his knife and do exactly that. At least it was a somewhat honorable fight. Later encounters would be less so.

It didn’t take long once they reached camp for Serena to establish herself as the alpha dog. Her father was a timber man in Colorado before she was orphaned, and he had taught her the business well. The men never doubted her knowledge or fortitude. In the coolest example of her mettle, she imported a large eagle and trained it to kill rattlesnakes with its dagger-like talons. That was one less danger for the men, but plenty of others still existed. It was said that if you took all the body parts that were lost in accidents and stitched them together, you’d get a new man every month. But at that time, you could always get more workers.

Soon enough, major impediments stood in their way. Conservationists wanted the timberland for National Parks, the various interests in the company partnership began to diverge, and the local law didn’t always see eye to eye with Serena and her accomplice in almost all matters, Pemberton. Once it was established the extremes to which Serena and Pemberton¹ would go, there wasn’t much nuance left in the characters. Good and evil were clearly established. With a view of logging as land rape, it could be no other way.

On the good side of the ledger, there was Rachel, the pregnant girl in the first chapter. She, too, was strong and resourceful, but with a lot less control. Things are more difficult with a baby and no savings. She was the third POV character and a good one for showing the life and times. The local sheriff was a good guy, too. He was one of the few officials who could not be bought by the Pembertons. Assorted loggers were featured as well, serving, as someone said, as a kind of Greek chorus. They reflected the highlander culture and language while offering commentary on the conflicts they witnessed. And with the story’s many conflicts, they had plenty to discuss. But I won’t (in the interest of spoiler forbearance).

Despite seeing each successive problem a mile away, and venturing a good guess about what the reactions would be (it’s checkers, not chess), Rash keeps us turning the pages. He’s a good story-teller and has a very fluid style. I liked how he painted the landscape with his words. He also gave a strong sense of how even very simple lives involve specialized survivor skills that you and I probably don’t possess. For instance, Rachel had to know where to look for ginseng, how to keep the bees, and how to patch a chimney. These were as important to her as knowing the mot juste would be to a Valley girl for social survival.

The one thing I didn’t care for in an otherwise great book was how little internal conflict there was once Serena’s relentlessness was established. She ceased to be anything more than an Ayn Rand character raised to the 666th power. There are plenty of other things to like, though. If the following quote by Rash in my edition’s P.S. section is an indication, maybe the main character was the region and its shared humanity all along. Serena was just its foil.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely “regional” literature is also often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Colombia are exotic, and they are also familiar.

¹I was tempted to shorten this pair to S&P, but I suspect they need no further insinuation as symbols of big business as it’s purported to be, rapacious and predatory.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Whenever I hear "Ron Rash," I think "Steve Holt." I don't know why.
steve holt

message 2: by Jason (last edited Jul 20, 2012 03:30PM) (new) - added it

Jason Great review, Steve! Jennifer Lawrence would approve.

Steve Jason wrote: "Whenever I hear "Ron Rash," I think "Steve Holt." I don't know why."

I may be due to cycle through the Arrested Development series again soon. Getting started on Breaking Bad is the higher priority, though.

Oh, and it's good to know that Jennifer L. would approve. :-) Thanks!

message 4: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Oh no way!! How bizarre. I feel partly like an asshole, but partly like, whoaaah. Check this out:

message 5: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason I either straight up subliminally registered this steve holt thing from karen's review or I actually had the same weird response to the monosyllabic name. How wild!

message 6: by Steve (last edited Jul 20, 2012 08:37PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve That is kind of crazy, Jason. Ron has even got that arm pump thing going.

message 7: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Hope you enjoy BB Steve. It's one of my favorites.

Sweet review, that last quote is really great.

message 8: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Why do i Wallas feel drawn to read about baddies?

karen Jason wrote: "Whenever I hear "Ron Rash," I think "Steve Holt." I don't know why.


really?? is it because i used it in my review, or are we just that connected in the brain?

message 10: by Jason (last edited Jul 21, 2012 06:40PM) (new) - added it

Jason I have no idea which. I don't dispute that we are both pretty fucked up in the head. But in this case I have to imagine that I saw your review and that cemented the connection in my head, which was then retriggered by this review. Because I already knew that you love Ron Rash.

Still, we are so connected!

Jeffrey Keeten I have this on my list. Great review Steve! I need to shove it up the list.

message 12: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Don't shove it too hard!

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Great review, Steve. Rash was deliberately writing about the rape of the land as a metaphor for today. I guess one can't get much more rapacious than the many corporations that make it their business to leave no tree/mountaintop/fish/cubic foot of clean air behind. Serena stands in well for them.

You will find also that Serena gilds her Shakespearean lily by speaking in iambic pentameter. I love it when poets wrote novels.

message 14: by Steve (last edited Jul 24, 2012 07:08AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve Stephen -- Thanks. I liked that last quote well enough to stick it in without much of a segue. And BB is just now at the head of the queue.

Traveller -- Oh, and she is bad. Think of Cathy from East of Eden and add more power to do harm.

karen -- I've been hoping for an antidote for the times I find myself connected in the brain with Jason. BTW, I should have thanked you and Will for the implicit prompt to read this one.

Jason -- If I find that antidote, it may also work for your own connections with karen. No guarantees, though. The reticula involved in such an affinity are bound to be intricate.

Jeffrey -- Thank you. I think from others I've seen you rate highly, this one is going to pull you in with its Gothic appeal.

Will -- Special thanks to you for talking this one up. Your review points out a lot of what I enjoyed.

No one in particular -- I just got back from a reunion with the "Earth Mother" side of my family. It seemed natural to talk Rash up as a kindred spirit.

message 15: by MHJ (new) - added it

MHJ "There are enough of them that Jennifer Lawrence can’t possibly play them all in movie versions" -- We need a clone machine!
Thanks for the review :D

Steve Thanks, Misha. :-) I always appreciate the feedback. A clone machine is a great idea!

Shonna Great review -- we'll said. Enjoyed the Greek chorus similie; seemed bang on to me.

Steve Much appreciated, Shonna. I bet this will be a popular movie, giving the book a second life.

message 19: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Rice Just finished this. Did you catch the subtle reference to Hitler somewhere in the book? Serena the character was cut from the same cloth, I thought.

Steve I'm not sure I did catch that, Jan, but I'm not surprised to hear about it as bad as she was.

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