The Cove: A Novel

  • Ron Rash
  • Ecco
  • 272 pp.

At the end of World War I, a complicated intersection of lives plays out amid the superstitions and fears of Appalachian North Carolina.

Reviewed by C. Denise Ingram

Tying together events along the East Coast from New York to the Carolinas, Ron Rash, acclaimed author of the best seller Serena, again anchors a lyrical and heartfelt story to a lesser-known piece of United States history. He presents a tale of coincidence that leads to a collision of parallel hopes for acceptance and freedom. The Cove is a fairly short read, but Rash does not disappoint by keeping the story moving at a quick pace early on as few others can.

The story begins near the end of World War I, when America’s citizens, protected at an arm’s length, boasted vitriolic warnings and challenges to all things German. The U-boat sinking of the Lusitania luxury ocean liner, with more than 100 Americans on board, lit a fire under U.S. military involvement and citizen outrage. So much so that what was once a high-society championing of the German ship Vaterland and its crew — all berthed in a New York harbor — turns into a military siege of suspected spies and infiltrators. The officers and crew are quickly scattered to the states and interred at a number of prison camps.

With stark resemblance to today’s all-or-nothing, never-questioned patriotic zeal, the good folks of The Cove’s Madison County, N.C., hang first and ask questions later. The inhabitants of the nearby German POW camp are cursed and reviled, but its lax accommodations and supervision allow prisoner Walter Smith to escape. Walter hides under the cover of being mute to mask his origins as he aims to make his way back to New York where clearer heads and a continuing education in music await. On his journey, Walter is forced to lay low in a hidden treasure trove of granite, wild rivers and bountiful forests. When his most strident pursuers turn out to be a hive of stingers instead of bullets, he almost succumbs to the wild but for the discovery and rescue by the wistful daydreamer Laurel.

Laurel and Hank Shelton are long-ago orphaned siblings of simple, dirt-poor means. They live in their inherited house, on land nestled in nature’s rock outcroppings of the Appalachians under the shadow of presumed witchcraft. Hank, a Purple Heart veteran, left the war without all of his appendages. He particularly gets under the skin of the glory-seeking Chauncey Feith, the local army recruiter, who himself is disdained and ridiculed for his draft-dodging, privileged role of sending other folks’ sons to battle. Laurel suffers equally from social isolation by townsfolk who link her facial birthmark to suspicions and curses in the dark, mysterious gloom of her homestead — the cove.

The perspectives of this story are artfully provided by the pair of life-educated, non-affluent loners Laurel and Hank as they make plans to improve their place in life despite the trappings of folklore and rumors. Each has a physical anomaly acutely pitied by local society, reflecting the dangers of pettiness, ignorance and fear cowering underneath flag, faith and ego. Similarly, their friends and foes struggle. The handicap of the wrongly accused stranger Walter cannot protect him from judgments for past transgressions, whether real or imagined. Even Chauncey’s sad desperation to be honored and revered in history for his dedication to the nation falls afoul of good sense, leading to tragic consequences.

Eventually, various lights at the end of their respective tunnels begin to appear — a bride and new home place for Hank, the love of a man for Laurel, a second opportunity to escape back to New York for Walter and the success of a local hero’s celebration led by Chauncey. Hank reluctantly accepts the quiet Walter’s assistance with back-breaking chores required to prepare for his new family. When Laurel discovers that her brother’s plans to move forward do not include her, she realizes that her only future lies outside of the darkness of the cove in a bright and exciting world. Laurel soon develops feelings for Walter and fantasizes about their life together surrounded by his melodic flute playing. Neighboring mountain pickers and stompers also delight in Walter’s music, which adds a welcome flair to their oft-played hillbilly standards. However, in the end, even the bonds of musical kinship are too weak to offset the hatred of suspected war-time enemies.

The stories of Hank, Laurel, Walter and Chauncey resonate increasingly often in today’s cultures of outcasts and bullies, where even the victims are not immune to the bad karma that comes from lashing out and fighting back — no matter how long resisting the urge to put others in their place. Lives filled with hope and new adventures only to be hog-slapped back to the ground of reality. Although the time periods were a couple of decades apart, it also felt just right to imagine that Laurel was an ancestor of one of Serena’s many victims.

Versed in the familiar, lyrical flow of the deep corners of Appalachian dialect, The Cove offers readers yet another back-country porch, sit-a-spell glimpse of absorbing human stories intertwined by happenstance. Readers who are faint of heart need not worry that constant and often brutal surprises that are trademarks of other Ron Rash stories will surface — okay, maybe a little. And the ending might bring sighs of relief and sympathy or, equally, frustration.

Perhaps the only thing found lacking after traveling alongside the hopes and dreams of the young lovers Laurel and Walter is that the novel does not adequately explain the betrayal that ensues. That the gap occurred near the end of the story caused an exasperated but brief skepticism for an otherwise good read. Yet, all in all, you are not likely to be disappointed by Rash’s new gem. It surely made me want to dig further into my own local history for those bits of ancient hill stories like no others in the land.

C. Denise Ingram is a retired natural-resources and economics-policy analyst. Her writing background includes more than 30 scientific, technical and analytical papers that reflect her national and international work in more than 25 countries. She is currently pursuing a number of creative-writing projects focused on family and local histories.

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