Author: Ron Rash

Ecco, 2008

Best ebook deal: Public library

From the title of this novel, I did not expect a brutal story about the often gut-wrenching goings-on at a Depression-era logging camp in North Carolina. Once I got a sense of the premise, I did not expect to love reading it. Serena is not the kind of novel I usually love: it doesn’t have much humor, and it’s not particularly bent on entertaining its reader, although it is quite well written. What it does have is gripping, page-turning, keep-you-up-late drama.

I struggled with whether or not to make this book a Great Read. Ultimately, it’s a little too predictable, and the plot sticks a little too closely to the formulas it establishes early on. However, Serena is very hard to put down. You could finish it in a day if you set your mind to it; if not, it’ll be hard to stretch it past a week.

With summer just around the corner, consider Serena a phenomenal beach book for a literary-minded reader (with a significant tolerance for violence).

The main characters of the story are the Pembertons. Pemberton, the first-nameless husband, is an enormous knife-wielding businessman, cold-forged in the body part lottery of logging camps and train track layers, where surviving until 35 is a mark of extraordinary competency.

His wife, the eponymous Serena, is an equally hardened businesswoman just this side of supernatural. She rides a magnificent Arabian stallion and tames an eagle to kill the rattlesnakes that bite the men. Here’s a description of Serena that Wilkie, one of the Pembertons’ business partners, gives to the camp priest:

She sat upright on the gelding, the eagle perched on the leather gauntlet as if grafted to her arm. … “There’s a true manifestation of the godly,” Wilkie said admiringly. “Such an image gave the Greeks and Romans their deities. Gaze upon her, Reverend. She’ll never be crucified by the rabble.”

Serena, though tougher and more knowledgeable than any man in the camp, also has all the traditional powers of a woman. For instance, when her husband asks how she knew one of their partners was planning to betray them:

“’His eyes. He wouldn’t look our way, not once.” Serena smiled. “You men notice so little, Pemberton. Physical strength is your gender’s sole advantage.”

In the beginning, these descriptions seem to make Serena too perfect, and Pemberton too happy, and the only antagonist in sight seems to be Kephart, the antecedent to Al Gore: a man who wants the Pembertons to stop clear-cutting North Carolina and make it a national park instead.

However, just as you resign yourself to a thinly veiled eco-lecture, the body count begins to pick up, Rash allows the Pembertons’ cold efficiency to descend into viciousness, and the narrative becomes chillingly compelling.

This is a book of subtlety and precision. This is a book that knows where its reader is. This book plants ideas in your head, in order to later use them. Why is it called Serena, I kept asking myself, when it’s so clearly about her husband? By a hundred pages in, I was sure the title was a mistake. By two hundred pages in, I knew it wasn’t. This is a book where you don’t know who the hero is, and who you think it is, who you like, you’re wrong. But the wrongness comes up on you slowly, and surprises you.

Serena is a classic dramatic story, like The Power of One, or Lord of the Flies. It delivers the kind of reading experience I had as a kid, when I would stay up all night to finish books, because I couldn’t bear not knowing what happens next. This is a novel the way they don’t make them anymore.

Part of the compelling nature of the narrative is that it’s not focused exclusively on the Pembertons; it also spends significant time with those people whose lives they affect. Such as one logging crew that functions almost like a Greek chorus, chronicling the men’s lives as they die around each other with increasing frequency, and are just as quickly replaced from the unending line of labor seekers who clamber off boxcars and wait for work in the rain to prove their toughness.

There is a lot of death in this novel, a lot of killing by trees, tools, and people. But if that’s not the kind of thing to turn you off completely from a book, Serena is a terrific read.

Similar books: Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey; Lord of the Flies, by William Golding; The Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy