by Jeanne McDonald
Ron Rash, an Appalachian poet and novelist and winner of the winner of the 2005 Southeastern Booksellers Association Award, hypnotizes readers with his stories and poems about water in all its seductive forms. In his critically acclaimed collection of poetry, Raising the Dead , Rash combines history, hearsay and fiction to portray the Southern Appalachian spirit and the indomitable dignity of its people. He presents a broad spectrum of characters and presents each—even the hard-nosed villains—as human and sympathetic and allows each of them to demonstrate how place and experience can shape a man’s point of view, right or wrong.
His powerful poem, “Last Service,” relates how a rising lake hungrily devours churches, farms and graveyards in a small Southern town. A stream is the principal character in the lyrical “Fall Creek,” a narrative that embodies the love and history of a young couple, and in the poems “On the Keowee” and “The Men Who Raised the Dead” (“if not from death, from water”), the danger and allure of the water become almost allegorical.
Water is the also main character in Rash’s new novel, Saints at the River (Picador, 2004, $14). The Tamassee River, which runs through a small South Carolina town, claims the body of a 12-year-old girl, but the drama becomes not her death, but the ensuing battle between the family and environmentalists who claim a rescue effort will cause permanent damage to the river. Ruth had been pulled underwater by a hydraulic, an area where an obstacle—in her case, a huge rock—forces water to move in a forceful circle. Billy, an old friend of the narrator, Maggie, warns that a rescue attempt would be “not just dangerous, but useless. That water’s pouring in at 200 cubic feet a second. It would be like pulling someone out of the eye of a tornado.”
When Ruth’s grieving mother speaks to the town at a community meeting five weeks later, she pleads with the townspeople to help her. “‘It’s not just her body down there but her soul,’ she says. ‘That’s what my church has said for hundreds of years—that a person is in purgatory until the body is given Last Rites. My husband, and even my priest, say they don’t believe that.’ Ellen Kowalsky lowered her eyes and looked straight at us. ‘But what if they’re wrong?’”
When the owner of a portable dam company claims he can stop the river temporarily with one of his devices, there is both hope on one side of the argument and derision on the other. Between the preservation of nature and the recovery of a girl’s body, the moral imperative becomes cloudy. Then Luke, the local environmentalist who considers the river a sacred place, first reads from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1978: “alteration or modification of the streambed will not be permitted.” The dam builder faces off with Luke: “Are you telling me you wouldn’t want me to build this dam if it were your daughter?”
“I don’t have a daughter,” Luke replied, his voice no longer confrontational, almost gentle. “But if I did and she was dead and I knew there was nothing I could do to make her alive again, I can’t think of a place I’d rather her body be than in the Tamassee…. You tell me a more holy place…because I don’t know one.”
Although this novel has dozens of interesting characters, poses dozens of ethical questions, and explores an intricate love story, the hero is the river, beside which all other information seems incidental.
Even Ruth’s last thoughts give into its power: “[She] tells herself don’t breathe but the need grows inside her…and the lungs explode in pain and then the pain is gone along with the dark as bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, and she remembers her sixth-grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room…and at that moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.”
Ron Rash will read from his novel and sign books at Carpe Librum Booksellers on Friday, Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m.