Friday, June 19, 2009

Serena ~ by Ron Rash, 2008

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
Serena ~ by Ron Rash, 2008, fiction

What's the book about?
From the publisher: "The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains — but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning."
Location and time period
North Carolina is "next door" to my home state of Tennessee. I am familiar with the area around Waynesville, NC, where the story takes place, having spent a few days there every summer for over twenty years. That's what drew me to the story. Even more interesting, to me, was the subject of lumberjacks and sawmills because my maternal grandfather was a sawyer at exactly that time. His job was to find the next place his company would move the sawmill and cut down trees.

What did you think of the cover?
Look at those logs jamming the river. Click to enlarge the photo and imagine trying to unjam such a mess. I think somebody picked the right cover for this novel.

Did you like the way the book ended?
I didn't like much of the book, actually, but it made me think — mostly about my grandfather. A sawyer moved around a lot, and my mother's family followed her father from one stand of trees to the next, which meant the children were born in different places. My aunt Bonnie (I was named for her) was born in 1904 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, but by the time my mother came along in 1917 the family was living in Chattanooga. With five sons and two daughters who lived (and a sixth son born after my mother), my grandmother was tired of moving. That's when they bought a house here in Chattanooga — I lived there myself after my grandmother died when I was three. At the time there were only five houses in that area. At some point in his career, my grandfather rode the trolley to work at the sawmill located on the Tennessee River at the foot of Cameron Hill.

What do you think will be your lasting impression of this book?
The violence was appalling, especially the way Serena and Pemberton (the author calls him by his last name) would eliminate problems by causing a huge variety of deaths. Sometimes deaths appeared "accidental," but always coldly calculated to their advantage. It was a time when land was being acquired for what would become the Smoky Mountain National Park, and the Pembertons didn't want to give up their land. Their cut-and-run style of clear-cutting left mud to clog waterways which destroyed the beauty of the area. The story made me wonder if my grandfather was also guilty of such destruction. And then I began to wonder how true to the times the "accidents" were — my grandfather died alone in an "auto accident" while scouting for the next area to cut. I'm left wondering, Was it an accident? Was there something more sinister? But there's no way I'll ever know what happened in 1930, one year after this novel began. Reading this book has made me ponder what happened when he died when my mother was only twelve years old.

How would you rate this book?
Rated 7 of 10.


Susan Tidwell said...

Thanks for sending me here to this book review, very interesting times, and I also wonder if those type of 'accidents' and violence really happened during that time, unsettling isn't it?

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Yes, and you could see that it made me re-evaluate my grandfather's "accidental" death, though I'll never know what really happened in 1930. That's 80 years ago, and no one from that time is still alive, including my mother.