The Cove by Ron Rash (Canongate - January, 2013)
Ron Rash’s latest novel The Cove has the First World War at its centre but, unlike many such accounts, it stands out due to the original approach it takes to an old and still-festering issue.
The novel is set towards the end of the war, in the idyllic hinterlands of the Appalachian Mountains. At first this backdrop seems implausible as geographically it couldn’t be further away from the killing fields of Europe. But perhaps this proves the point that there is no hiding from the reach of war propaganda, and shows that war is foremost a frame of mind as much as a question of opportunity or motive.
Laurel is the unlikely protagonist of this story. She is an intelligent young woman who is shunned by the citizens of Mars Hill, North Carolina due to her disfiguring birthmark—seen as an ‘evil omen’. As both her parents died when she was a child, she lives a solitary life in a secluded valley, sharing a cabin with her brother Hank. Hank enlisted for the Great War alongside many young men from the area, and although he lost his right hand on the battlefield, considers himself lucky to have returned home alive. One day Laurel encounters a stranger in the woods. The young man has been badly stung by a swarm of hornets so she takes him back to the cabin to nurse him. A note in his pocket identifies him as Walter Smith. The stranger appears to be mute as well as illiterate which makes communication difficult. Nevertheless, a mutual respect grows between Walter and Laurel, and as his enchanting flute-playing wins her heart, they learn to converse without words. The war is almost over when the villagers accuse a resident professor of being a traitor and German spy, and it is then that Laurel discovers Walter’s true identity. No one can prevent a group of vigilantes from raiding the cove—Chauncey Feith, a cowardly sadist in an army uniform, leaps at the chance to prove himself a war hero. As they say—there is nothing more dangerous than a fool with a cause. Sadly, Laurel’s birthmark becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unlike many historical novels this one does not just recite the familiar facts of the history books and embroider them with emotional detail; Rash highlights a personal misfortune through an unusual perspective. He does not provide a bigger picture of these particular circumstances though, but sticks meticulously to the restricted view of his characters. He also avoids examining pacifistic or patriotic arguments. Instead Rash takes a more universal approach—he explores the problem of the ‘enemy within’, and in this sense he could be talking about almost any war the Americans have fought, including the Cold War. The US has accumulated quite a reputation for putting boots on foreign ground and some would even accuse them of ‘war tourism’. Rash’s focus is on the paranoia and ignorance that lies behind all bullying and discrimination; both in the name of patriotism and for personal vengeance. Indeed, he suggests these go hand in hand—that bullies often get away with murder.
The author pinpoints how hatred towards outsiders is usually based on poor education, prejudices, superstitions and a lack of transparency. He shows how this is frequently exploited by leaders in order to manipulate public opinions and to infuse animosity and stigmatisation; as during the war on terrorism, for example. Rash returns again and again to the significance of information as he illustrates how a situation can be controlled by twisting, hiding or wilfully destroying knowledge; be it a newspaper article or a wish-list for a secret wedding. In contrast to this we have the wordless communication between Laurel and Walter that is based on trust, equality and a willingness to understand despite the abyss of difference. Furthermore, it can be said that this story employs the classic plot-device that shapes many war novels; whereby aggression is juxtaposed with romance. Who could forget the farewell scene in Casablanca? Rash handles romance in a level-headed manner though.
Rash has received countless awards for his work including the O. Henry Prize, the Frank O’Conner Award for his collection Burning Bright and he was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize. Arguably he is best known for his short stories, and The Cove itself actually reads more like a very long short story than a novel as the writing drives purposefully towards that final epiphany.
The escalation of public opinion is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Rash is similarly matter of fact about the destructive forces that lay dormant in a community exposed to financial and cultural deprivation. He is often compared to Cormac McCarthy although personally I found that Rash is far more expansive with his descriptions. His depictions of nature and landscapes in particular have the passionate notion that clearly exposes his background as a poet. We learn, for instance, that the cove is so sheltered that it’s one of the few places where the Carolina Parakeet can still be found in the wild. His metaphors are thriving throughout although here and there they seem a hint too strained. Nevertheless, there is a refreshing authenticity as Ron Rash himself lives in the Appalachian Mountains where he is a Professor at West Carolina University.
The Cove is a highly compelling novel with a birthmark. The shifting point of view is somewhat troublesome yet it scores on so many other levels. The flow and quality of language is as enchanting as Walter’s flute playing. Above all, the story has its heart in the right place which helps to suspend any disbelief. It’s noteworthy that in this slender volume Rash manages to comment eloquently on the present through past events. As for the Great War; although it happened a hundred years ago the lesions inflicted by the horror of that conflict still demand much cathartic resolve.