Serena (Rash)

Ron Rash, 2008
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061470844

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire.

Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains — but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor.

Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash's masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—Chester Springs, South Carolina, USA
Reared—Boiling Springs, North Carolina, USA
Education— B.A., Gardner-Webb College; M.A., Clemson   
Awards—O'Henry Prize; National Endowment for the Arts  
   Poetry Fellowship; Sherwood Anderson Prize
Currently—lives in North Carolina

Ron Rash is the author of three prize-winning novels — One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight — thee collections of poems and two collections of stories. A recipient of the O. Henry Prize, he holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
With bone-chilling aplomb, linguistic grace and the piercing fatalism of an Appalachian ballad, Mr. Rash lets the Pembertons' new union generate ripple after ripple of astonishment…Among this novel's many wonders are Mr. Rash's fine ear for idiomatic, laconic talk and the startling contrast he creates between Serena and her new neighbors.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Serena, the Lady Macbeth of Ron Rash's stirring new novel, wouldn't fret about getting out the damned spot. She wouldn't even wash her hands; she'd just lick it off. I couldn't take my eyes off this villainess.... In addition to writing short stories, Rash is also a fine poet, and he brings a poet's concision and elliptical tendencies to this novel. As a result, these scenes and conversations constantly suggest more than they show, a technique that renders them alluring, sometimes erotic, often frightening. And his restraint is a necessity to keep this gothic tale from slipping into campiness. That's a real danger when you've got a beautiful murderess striding around the forest with a pet eagle on her wrist and a one-armed goon at her side. Frankly, it's sometimes difficult to catch the author's tone in these passages; the book seems deadly serious, but there are moments...when one suspects that Rash is rolling his eyes, too. But this is the challenge of the gothic novel: managing the accretion of excesses in a way that doesn't break the spell. The blind hag who delivers prophesies to the lumbermen, the insane preacher who warns of impending doom, even the portentous eclipse of the moon—all these details rise up just right.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

A powerful tale, well told, Serena is enriched by Rash’s artful use of language. With just the right turn of phrase, dead-on details and subtle use of symbol, he delivers a story that will remain with readers long after the final page.

Masterfully written.... The book is consistently heartbreaking in its portrayal of what humans are capable of.... Sprawling [and] engrossing.
Charlotte Observer

Depression-era lumber baron George Pemberton and his callous new wife, Serena, are venality incarnate in Rash's gothic fourth novel (after The World Made Straight), set, like the other three, in Appalachia. George—who coolly kills the furious father of Rachel Harmon, the teenage girl pregnant with George's bastard son-is an imperious entrepreneur laying waste to North Carolina timberland without regard for the well-being of his workers. His evil pales beside that of Serena, however. Rash's depictions of lumber camp camaraderie (despite deadly working conditions) are a welcome respite from Serena's unrelenting thirst for blood and wealth; a subplot about government efforts to buy back swaths of privately owned land to establish national parks injects real history into this implacably grim tale of greed and corruption gone wild—and of eventual, well-deserved revenge.
Publishers Weekly

This is a violent story about ambition, privilege, and ruthlessness played out in an Appalachian timber camp in North Carolina during the Depression. The novel opens with the camp's wealthy owner, George Pemberton, returning from Boston with his new bride, Serena. He is met on a train platform by his business partners—and by camp kitchen worker Rachel, who is carrying his child (and meeting the train with her angry father). When George leaves the platform, Rachel's father is dead, and Rachel herself has been spurned and humiliated. The novel is richly detailed, and many of the characters are skillfully drawn by Rash (The World Made Straight). Unfortunately, though, the Pembertons—who are rapacious and monstrously self-absorbed—often seem one-dimensional and implausible. Serena is particularly hard to believe at times. Still, parts of the novel are superb, particularly the final section when Serena turns violently against Rachel and her son. The Pembertons create a wasteland in these beautiful mountains, and Rash also renders that loss powerfully. Though flawed, this manages to be an engaging read. Recommended for libraries with large fiction collections
Patriack Sullivan - Library Journal

The latest from Rash (The World Made Straight, 2006, etc.) is a fine melodrama about a wealthy homicidal couple, latter-day Macbeths, in Depression-era Appalachia. The book is an artful expansion of "Pemberton's Bride," the brilliant standout in Rash's story collection Chemistry (2007). The opening is unforgettable. Pemberton and his bride Serena return from Boston to Waynesville, in the North Carolina mountains. Waiting at the train station is Abe Harmon and his pregnant daughter Rachel. Harmon has vowed to kill her seducer Pemberton, but the latter knifes the drunk old man to death as Serena watches approvingly. Pemberton has no fear of the consequences, for he owns the lumber company on which Waynesville depends and has the local officials on his payroll, all except his nemesis, sheriff McDowell. He has a worthy mate in Serena, daughter of a Colorado lumber baron; her entire family died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. No sentimentalist, she burnt down the family home before moving East. Eventually she too will bloody her hands, killing an innocent and strengthening her bond with Pemberton. The mercilessly exploited workers soon realize she is Pemberton's full partner; his former partner is killed in a hunting "accident." When she saves the life of a foreman, Galloway (felling trees is dangerous work), he becomes her lifelong slave, and hit man; the incompetent doctor who causes Serena to miscarry is just one of Galloway's victims. But the novel is not just a trail of blood. Rash also focuses on the quiet dignity of Rachel (now a single parent raising Jacob, Pemberton's son) and shows an unforced reverence for nature, hideously despoiled by Pemberton's relentless clear-cutting. The lumber king's one soft spot is his feeling for Jacob, but that proves too much for Serena. The last hundred pages are thrilling, as mother and son take flight; McDowell supports them heroically; and Pemberton...well, see for yourself. Should be a breakthrough for this masterful storyteller.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Explore the novel's use of historical figures and events—Horace Kephart, George Vanderbilt, and the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. How do these characters contribute to the historical texture of the novel? What are the values attributed to these characters? What does the book have to say about the importance of land preservation versus the need for economic interests?

2. How would you describe Serena's philosophy of life? What does she value most? What importance does she place on honesty? In your opinion, did she ever truly love Pemberton? If so, what do her actions in the end say about what she values most in life?

3. The moon, prominent in both mythology and folklore, has traditionally embodied femininity, romantic love, insanity, and life cycles. Serena is associated with the moon throughout the novel, and her name evokes Selena, a goddess of the moon. How does this association deepen the characterization of Serena? Is the author's pairing of the moon with Serena in any way ironic?

4. Although Serena and Rachel have decidedly different personalities, can you see any similarities between them? How do the juxtaposed scenes at the end of Book One—Serena taming the eagle and Rachel carrying Jacob to the doctor—create parallels between these women? How do Rachel's and Serena's childhoods shape their adult personalities?

5. Although many of the novel's events are dark and violent, there are comic moments as well, as in McIntyre's prophecies of snakes falling from the sky. What are some other comic scenes? What purpose do these episodes have in the larger pattern of the novel?

6. There is a hunting episode near the novel's beginning and one at the conclusion. Compare and contrast the characters and actions in these scenes. What foreshadowing can you see in the first hunting scene? How do these connections help you understand the second hunting episode more fully?

7. From the opening scene when he arrives in Waynesville and dispatches Harmon, Pemberton is in control of nearly everyone and everything he surveys. Considering his lifelong position of authority and control through economic and physical violence, why do you think he was blind to Serena's intentions in the end? Does the conclusion change your feelings about Pemberton? Why or why not?

8. Although the novel offers a kind of realism akin to the historical documentary, there are episodes of the otherworldly and supernatural that cannot be explained rationally. What effect do these scenes and characters have on you as the reader?

9. For instance, do you believe in the "second sight" of the blind Mrs. Galloway? What do these examples suggest about the nature of the world and the actions of human beings?

10. Several reviewers have argued that there has never been a character quite like Serena in previous American fiction. Do you agree? Can you think of other female characters who wield such life and death power with such ruthlessness?

11. In the novel's coda, it is 1929, Serena is living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The notorious Nazi Joseph Mengele was living in Sao Paulo at the same time. Is there any indication that Serena and Mengele were somewhere connected? If so, what significance do you see in their connection?

12. When Rachel gathers ginseng early in the novel, she carefully replants the seeds to ensure more plants will grow. She is also extremely knowledgeable about the plants and creatures she lives among. Contrast her attitude to nature to the Pembertons.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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