In the prologue to Ron Rash’s new novel, The Cove (Ecco), a government official arrives in the mountain town of Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall of 1957. He makes his way to a small farm, overshadowed by an immense cliff, to check for any human presence before the TVA Reclamation Project floods the area. Thirsty from the walk along “the memory of a trail” decorated with “shards of colored glass and yellow salt… to keep evil from coming through,” he draws a murky bucket from an old well. The water settles “enough to see something else harbored in the bucket’s bottom. He thought it might be his own dim reflection. Then the water cleared more and what lay in the bucket assumed a round and pale solidity, except for the holes where the eyes had been.”
The Cove’s story starts forty years earlier, near the end of World War I, during the last summer a brother and sister live on a cursed family farm. Three characters share the novel’s close-third narration, but the bulk belongs to Laurel Shelton, a woman with a large purple birthmark on her shoulder. Her father bought the farm cheap, unaware of local superstition; “There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.” The Sheltons enter folklore when the father collapses in a field and the mother dies of a poisoned limb that “turned the color of Laurel’s stained skin.” Marked by the cove “as its own” in the eyes of neighbors, Laurel becomes an exile and a burden to her brother, whose war wound buys him community acceptance. Then, Laurel discovers a mute flutist hiding deep inside the cove. An accident draws him out of the woods and into her home, where they fall in love through gesture and music.
Admittedly, the plot reads like a doomed romance novel with a dark twist. That said, the author layers the story with historical details that help it transcend that fate. Central to the novel is a German internment camp located just west of Mars Hill. Here, the government interned the crew and orchestra (the origins of the flutist) of the Vaterland—a German luxury liner seized and renamed Leviathan. The ambiguity and paranoia of wartime patriotism drive the violence of the novel’s subplot (see: a skull in a well). Yet, Rash lets real horror creep into his reader’s imagination like the dark water that will drown the valley. That ominous cliff just breaking the surface like the tip of an iceberg, so that “people would have no inkling it was once immense enough to shadow a whole cove.”
- Profile of Ron Rash’s roots in Appalachian culture on the Western Carolina website. Rash reflects on his grandfather – who couldn’t read or write – and the gift of storytelling he passed to his young grandson.