“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”
Rash introduces the reader to the title character, Serena, a woman not of her times but certainly of her place, when she responds to the introduction of Rachel, mother of her husband’s child and the daughter of the man with a bowie knife that her husband just killed, by handing her the killing knife and advising her to sell it, “That money will help when the child is born,” Serena says coolly. “It’s all you’ll ever get from my husband and me.”
Rash bring to life the times of the timber barons’ last stand in the Smoky Mountains. The story is set in 1929 with mention of the Wall Street crash as something far away from the mountain fastness but its effects are felt as desperate men appear, looking for jobs. Life is cheap in Pemberton’s lumber camp and replacements for those killed by the work are quickly found.
It’s not just the trees that kill. Serena will let nothing stand in the way of the Pembertons’ desire to cut every tree on their 34,000 acres as soon as possible, then move on to Brazil with its hundreds of miles of hardwood forests. When Galloway, the foreman, matter-of-factly loses his arm to an ax, his work turns to killing anyone who stands in the way of the Pemberton ambition. That list gets long as the story progresses through the seasons of destroying an ecosystem as quickly as possible before the land is “grabbed” by the government for inclusion in the soon to be Smokey Mountains National Park.
Rash uses a Greek chorus of loggers to comment on the action and the characters. I enjoyed this Shakespearean ploy and found their dialogue informative as well as fun. I read some of it aloud to taste the pleasures of the language. The author is as adept at bringing the setting to the life as he is with plot, character and dialogue, allowing the reader to see the Smokey Mountains in all their glory and in their devastation.
The last flawless chapter captivated me with a perfectly creepy shock that still has me wondering how he did it. Now I must go find his other books, including the short story collection, Chemistry and Other Stories (2007),that contains the first notes of the book that became Serena The movie will be released in February 2015. I will be watching to see if Jennifer Lawrence can bring Serena's deeply evil character to life. Brrrrrrr!