Lonely young woman meets mysterious stranger. What might have been trite and formulaic is anything but in Rash’s fifth novel, a dark tale of Appalachian superstition and jingoism so good it gives you chills.
Three miles out of town, in the North Carolina mountains, a massive cliff rears up. Beneath it is a cove, gloom-shrouded and cursed, so the locals believe, though all the out-of-state Sheltons knew was that the farmland was cheap. The story takes place in 1918. Both parents have died and their grown children, Hank and Laurel, are trying to cope. Hank is back from the war, missing one hand. Laurel has a purple birthmark; she has been ostracized by the townsfolk of Mars Hill as a witch. Rash’s immersion in country ways and idioms gives his work a rare integrity. One day Laurel hears a stranger playing his flute in the woods; the sound is mournful but mesmerizing. The next time she finds him prone, stung by hornets, and nurses him back to health at the cabin. (What the reader knows, but Laurel doesn’t, is that he’s on the run from a barracks.) A note in his pocket tells her his name is Walter and he’s mute. Laurel can live with that. She has low expectations, but maybe her life is about to begin. Hank hires Walter to help him fence the pasture; he proves an excellent worker. Laurel confesses her “heart feelings:” Walter is encouraging; Laurel cries tears of joy. Meanwhile in town Sgt. Chauncey Feith, a bombastic, deeply insecure army recruiter and faux patriot, is stoking fear of spies in their midst as local boys return from the front, some in terrible shape. Eventually Laurel learns Walter’s identity; his back story is fascinating, but only a spoiler would reveal more. Let’s just say the heartbreaking climax involves a lynch mob led by Feith; perhaps the cove really is cursed.
Even better than the bestselling Serena (2008), for here Rash has elevated melodrama to tragedy.