Ron Rash’s Serena artfully captures the beauty and brutality of life in the Smoky Mountains in the early 1930s. The novel provides historical perspective on the clash between business interests and environmentalism that still runs hot today.
However, the real force of nature in Serena is the book’s namesake, a woman whose ambition and cruelty mow over rivals just as swiftly as her husband’s logging company takes down hardwoods in the mountains outside Waynesville, North Carolina.
There is a scene early in the novel that indicates just how formidable a character Serena Pemberton will be. It’s the end of another long day at the Boston Logging Company. George Pemberton, his new bride and his business partners are relaxing with a few drinks. At this point in the story, Serena has already humbled her husband’s abandoned lover. Her courage and toughness have won the respect of the working men in the logging camp. But the company’s managers are not impressed with George Pemberton’s young wife—it is the 1930s, after all. The camp physician, Doc Cheney, mirthfully praises Serena for being unusually logical for the “the fairer sex.”
Serena gives the doctor a cutting response.
“My husband tells me that you are from these very mountains, a place called Wild Hog Gap,” Serena said to Cheney. “Obviously, your views on my sex were formed by the slatterns you grew up with, but I assure you the natures of women are more various than your limited experience allows.”
If you think Serena is striking a blow for women’s rights, you might want to hold your applause until the book’s end. Doc Cheney and many others will soon learn that Serena transcends any gender, that she may even be a creature of mythical powers.
I saw Ron Rash speak at a book conference in 2014. He said then that his creative process involves many, many rewrites—sometimes 20 to 30 revisions of a single short story. That craftsmanship and attention to detail pay off in Serena, which combines beautiful prose with vivid characters and a suspenseful, harrowing plot.
In Serena Pemberton, Rash has created an epic persona of uncompromising villainy. If you thought that Amy Dunne in Gone Girl was frightening, you really should check out Serena.