This selection of 34 stories from four collections signals the growing prominence of a fine author; the movie of his enthralling 2008 novel Serena is due this fall. Rash's writing is rooted in the mountains of North Carolina, the region’s history and folkways.
These stories describe a hardscrabble landscape streaked with violence that, in Rash’s telling, is graphic but never gratuitous. Some are set in the present, others in the past, which should be respected and remembered. A visiting Briton’s ignorance of his family’s history results in his savage punishment ("A Servant of History"); a mercenary moocher trashes soldiers’ graves and also gets his comeuppance ("Dead Confederates"). The most powerful contemporary stories highlight the ravages of meth addiction. Further back in time, "Hard Times" glimpses lives broken by Depression-era poverty, while the Civil War–related stories have an almost crystalline quality. The mountains are predominantly for the Union; a young wife, alone on her farm, must battle a scavenging Confederate soldier ("Lincolnites"). Pity Ethan Burke in "The Dowry." The war over, the young Union soldier hopes to marry the daughter of a Confederate colonel, who lost a hand on the battlefield. The colonel’s condition is that he receive a severed hand first. Even more haunting is the plight of two runaway slaves seeking shelter from a farmer maddened by grief over the loss of his son and wife ("Where the Map Ends"). He helps one slave on his way but detains the other; a rope hangs ready in the barn. Yet there’s light relief here too, from the antics of three dummies and one smart bear in the wilderness ("A Sort of Miracle") to a memorable fish story ("Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes").
These superbly suspenseful stories evoke a world of hurt, but what makes them so deeply satisfying is that they enlarge our capacity for empathy.