The Coveby Ron Rash.
The fighting of WWI may be happening on the battlefields of Europe, but that doesn’t mean that remote communities in America don’t feel a ripple of its effects too…
Young men who volunteered are returning home maimed – Hank Shelton lost a hand, and he’s doing his best to renovate the family farm with his sister Laurel. The farm is in a gloomy cove, a hard area in which to prosper, and believed to be cursed. The Sheltons live there quietly which suits Laurel – trips to town are often a trial for her, the superstitious locals taking her birthmark for the sign of a witch.
She watched Hank walk up the boardwalk. He paused to shake hands with Marvin Alexander and was greeted with a nod and smile by a passing couple. In those two years they’d been in school together, it had been hard for both of them but worse for Laurel because of the birthmark. Yet she and Hank had never allowed any difference. At school, he’d fight boys older and bigger because of remarks just aimed at Laurel. Once something started, she’d done the same for him, clawing and biting anyone who took on Hank. Then Ellie Anthony, who sat near them, came down with polio. Her parents claimed Laurel and Hank the cause. Other parents vowed to keep their children out of school until Laurel and Hank were gone.
On trips to town after that, they’d been treated even worse. Besides the snubs and glares they’d grown used to, some people spat as she and Hank went by. A man threatened to horsewhip Slidell if he kept bringing them to town and one Saturday she and Hank had been hit by rotten eggs. Bad as it was, they’d at least endured it together, but since Hank’s return from Europe, most of the meanness had been directed only at Laurel. More than a hand had been left behind in Europe, people seemed to believe.
One day a stranger arrives from the woods, Laurel finds him in a clearing, having heard flute music wafting through the air. Walter doesn’t talk, he has few posessions, but agrees to help Hank on the farm for a while, and Laurel is attracted to this strong, mute musician. You just know it will end in tragedy when Walter’s story is revealed…
Interspersed between the chapters of the Shelton’s lives, are episodes featuring Sgt Chauncey Feith who runs the Army Recruitment Office in the town and is always perfectly attired in his uniform. He is also somewhat looked down upon by many townsfolk, because he has never gone to war he trains cadets hoping they’ll enlist when they’re old enough. He is obsessed with rooting out un-American activities and anything German, and is busy organising a home-coming for another injured GI, and he will have his part to play in the ensuing events.
Ron Rash has written a novel that is quietly devastating. Although Laurel’s life begins to look up, life in the cove always teeters on a knife-edge. It may be gloomy, but there are places the sun can reach. Rash uses these to create passages of lyrical fresh air, before the text has to get down to hard work again. He captures the strong bond and sibling tensions perfectly between Hank and Laurel who are young for farmers. It is left to their kindly neighbour Slidell to give some fatherly guidance, shame that the townsfolk don’t feel the same way.
The Cove is one of those novels in which not a lot appears to happen, but you’re drawn in by the wonderfully descriptive writing of the characters and their hard lives – and then you realise that lots has happened. (9/10)
I chose this book based on the cover quote from Daniel Woodrell, author of the fine backwoods novel Winter’s Bone. His recommendation was spot-on and Ron Rash is an author I will definitely explore further.
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The Coveby Ron Rash. Pub March 2012 by Canongate. Hardback 272 pages.
Winter’s Boneby Daniel Woodrell