Ron Rash: Appalachia Made Straight

Posted by Front Porch Blog | April 25, 2006 at 3:11 am


[Jeff Biggers'latest book is "The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America." Buy The United States of Appalachia from a local book store. And read reviews here, here, and here. I just picked up this book Friday and am thrilled to get to read it. Ill be reviewing it here - jdub]

Excerpt from The Bloomsbury Review
Based in his native mountains of western North Carolina, Ron Rash’s third novel is a powerful, and at times hair-raising, story of historical loss and recovery, haunted by the spirits of the Civil War that still breathe life or death into our modern experience. For Appalachians, and the rest of the nation, World Made Straight (Holt) is a brilliant reminder that the past is often a prologue for our contemporary challenges. For Travis, a young high school drop-out unaware that his fishing trip on Caney Creek is about to launch him on a death-defying bildungsroman, the spirits of his past reside in an abandoned but not forgotten meadow in Madison County. Travis stumbles onto a plot of marijuana in the backwoods; but, this is just the first, and inevitably treacherous, step into an even greater secret hidden from sight. Steeped in the rich language and lyricism of Appalachia that has won Rash national acclaim as a poet, World Made Straight joins Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon as an important lyric page turner for our times; an American masterpiece about the power of unresolved history to shatter, subvert and ultimately heal our heart-breaking attempts to understand our identities and own times.

Leaving behind an abusive home, the young Travis eventually takes refuge at the trailer of Leonard, a once idealistic teacher who has lost his job and child after being framed for drugs. Leonard turns on society; he ends up dealing drugs and retreating to his backwoods haunt as a disaffected bibliophile. His trailer become a magnet for other lost souls, including Dena, a strung-out pill-popping naïf who trades sex for kindness; who declares, in one of the novel’s most relentless moments, that she realized she had lost control over her life at the age of seven.

As dark as any Russell Banks novel, sharing his afflicted characters and their penchant for self-inflicted destruction, World Made Straight is a little threatening at times, yet big-hearted, even funny and always moving. One of the novel’s best characters, the vicious drug cultivating Carlton Toomey, defies the caricature of the hillbilly outlaw in a biting riposte to outside stereotypes; he hides his glasses and crossword puzzles when the urban drug dealers arrive.

Leonard, though, is a teacher at heart, and World Made Straight emerges as one of the most beautiful portraits of a natural teacher’s role as a guide despite the circumstances, or as Rash quotes Mozart, “the crookedness” of the times. Leonard not only sets Travis back on track toward his education and career, piling him down with history books and classical music, but provides him with a map to a bitter past that both men share. That past, and an infamous (and real) massacre at Shelton Laurel during the Civil War, opens up a memory vein that is both illuminating and irreconcilable.

“Why do you reckon people don’t talk much about what happened up here?” Travis asked.

“The men who shot them were also from this country. Even after the war some folks got killed because of what happened that morning. People believed it was better not to talk about it.”

In the end, Leonard and Travis are forced by history to make decisions that affect their daily lives. In a place where “landscape as destiny” shapes an unforgiving world, Rash packs his sentences and scenes with compelling and beautiful images—the recovery of the crushed glasses of a young boy killed at the massacre—that will leave the reader struggling with the same questions long after they have finished the book.

Good novels are written by people who are not frightened, George Orwell declared in his landmark essay, Inside the Whale. Beyond any cultural or regional limitations, Rash is one of the most dauntless, gifted and original writers today. World Made Straight is an enormously moving novel that will be read, discussed and grappled with beyond the rest of our lives. As the Robert Penn Warren for a new generation, Rash is an Appalachian writer deserving as much national attention as possible.

Email a friend about Rash’s work on Appalachia today; or even better, buy a book at your local bookstore and pass it on.


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