On its surface, Ron Rash’s new novel isn’t an overtly political tale. It’s a love story, an adventure, and a mystery, set in the mountains of North Carolina during World War I. But The Cove is also deeply concerned with the fate of the outsider, taking on issues of xenophobia, superstition, and jingoism that are more complex than they first appear. Rash’s love for the hills and hollows of Appalachia is obvious, but his interest clearly lies with the darker spots.
The book’s cove itself is such a spot, dark both physically and spiritually. It lies just outside the town of Mars Hill, but it might be a hundred miles away; while Mars Hill boasts a busy downtown and a small college, the cove is sunk in the mistrust that generations of superstition and fear breed. What should be rich bottom land is barren and infertile, physically overshadowed by a steep cliff. This is where Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live, doing their best to carry on after the death of their parents. Hank has just come back from Europe missing a hand, and Laurel, born with a large port-wine birthmark, has spent her life shunned by the townsfolk as a witch, believed to be as blighted by the cursed place as its dying chestnut trees.
The cliff loomed over her and though her eyes were cast downward she felt its presence. Even inside the cabin she could feel it, as though the cliff’s shadow was so dense it soaked through the wood. Nothing but shadow land, her mother had told Laurel, and claimed there wasn’t a gloomier place in the whole Blue Ridge. A cursed place as well, most people in the county believed, cursed long before Laurel’s father bought the land. The Cherokee had stayed away from the cove, and the first white family to settle here had all died of smallpox. There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.
Pinned down by the land and their loyalty to each other, both yearn to break free of the place. Hank has plans to marry, and Laurel dreams of love and faraway places. In the meantime the war rages on, Mars Hill’s young men go off to fight, and the town’s recruiting officer, Chauncey Feith, does his best to whip up fear of the Germans—the dreaded Huns—to keep the volunteers coming and deflect attention from the fact that he himself is staying safe at home. Feith even goes so far as to harass the college’s German professor, and the librarian for its collection of German novels:
He wrote Mars Hill Library on the ledger’s second page, skipped a line, and began copying book titles. The language looked sinister, especially the two dots that resembled a rattlesnake bite. The words could mean anything.
Enter, of course, a stranger. Laurel follows the sound of what she imagines is birdsong one day to discover a young man hiding deep in the cove, playing the flute like an angel. When she comes back a second day to spy on him again she finds him nearly stung to death by wasps, and brings him back to the cabin. The man carries a note: his name is Walter, he’s mute, and he’s headed for New York. Yet after Laurel and Hank have nursed him back to health he stays, helping Hank work the farm and eventually falling in love with Laurel. A fellow outcast, perhaps, because of his lack of speech, he lends some light and music to both their lives—but of course, again, things are not that simple.
Rash convincingly paints the insularity of a small town looking over its collective shoulder. Strangers, foreigners, shirkers, cowards, the physically different—everyone is suspect, and few feel secure. While The Cove’s love story is conventional, the sense of menace, and the discomfort in standing out from the crowd in one way or another, is strikingly real. He also has a deft touch in describing that part of the country, both landscape and household, and his use of evocatively specific regionalisms never edges into condescension or vernacular. What’s disappointing, then, is the surprising lack of nuance in the book’s characters. Those who are good are good clear through, with no instances of moral ambiguity or questionable motives—Laurel’s brief moment of civil disobedience against a bully of a local merchant doesn’t count. Those who are bad are weak, false, and easily swayed. Librarians, teachers, and professors all embody the shining ideals of enlightenment. The only ones who walk an intermediate line, two brothers, are allowed to change in order to move the story along.
The ways in which world events and rural town life weave together, their convergences and consequences, makes for a good parable. But I think more subtly drawn characters, with messier edges, would have taken The Cove beyond a moral tale and a simple love story. Rash is an adept enough writer, with a strong enough arsenal of principles, to make us care about them and their fears. After all, every one of us is an outsider sometime.
This is part of a blog tour sponsored by HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours. Some more stops for this book can be found here:
Monday, April 9th: Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, April 11th: “That’s Swell!”
Thursday, April 12th: The Whimsical Cottage
Monday, April 16th: Just Joanna
Tuesday, April 17th: Picky Girl
Wednesday, April 18th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, April 19th: A Musing Reviews
Monday, April 23rd: Life In Review
Tuesday, April 24th: Lit and Life
Thursday, April 26th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, April 30th: The Road to Here
Tuesday, May 1st: The Mookse and the Gripes
Thursday, May 3rd: Bookfoolery and Babble
Monday, May 7th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, May 22nd: Layers of Thought
TBD: Brandi Reads