Ron Rash: Serena – a heroine whom no one but myself will much like

It’s well known that Jane Austen predicted that Emma would be ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. She has been proved wrong over time, but this prediction might be more justified in the case of Ron Rash’s Serena, the ‘heroine’ of the eponymous novel about a ruthless couple intent on building a logging empire in America just after the Great Depression.

When I heard Ron Rash talk about this book and his writing in general at the Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2017, he seemed to have grudging but real admiration for his anti-heroine. ‘Women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical’, he said, and the truth is she is the kind of pioneer/cowboy that American history and fiction idolises, if she had appeared at an earlier time and if she had been a man. He described how the image of Serena appeared to him as a vision of a woman on a white horse with an eagle on her wrist – something almost medieval in that image, but also something straight out of a Western – and the scenes of her hunting snakes with the eagle she has painstakingly tamed are among the most powerful ones in the book. Yet even here, one of the workers mutters that what she is doing is going against nature and that will have consequences.

There is quite a bit of melodrama in the way Serena and her husband George Pemberton behave with their workers and partners in their logging emporium, with anyone who opposes their cruel deforestation policies, with Rachel, the young girl who was impregnated by Pemberton before he went off to Boston to meet and marry Serena. There is something of the stylised Greek tragedy set-up about the book: the main characters doing things that seem incredibly cruel or foolish or both, while the workers fulfil the role of the chorus who comments on the inevitability or folly of it all. Perhaps that explains why the workers are not that well developed or distinguishable as individual characters.

You know my passion for social, ecological and economic issues, so needless to say the aspect of the book that I found most interesting was the description of the destruction of the natural world in the interests of the economy, and the conflict between smallholders, loggers and those conservationists eager to create national parks. I also found the description of the historical period interesting, this being just after the Great Depression when jobs were scarce and labour conditions extremely exploitative. I couldn’t help comparing it to the present day, when environmental issues and economic collapse are once more on the agenda, and wondering whether it would lead to more or less exploitation of low-paid workers.

Finally, although the plot might be a bit extreme and brutal, the characters unappealing, I do find Rash’s writing quite beautiful, by turns poetic and bleak, but always very evocative, with a keen eye for nature. There’s something about it that reminds me of Kent Haruf or Sam Shepard – the darkness of the American ‘lone ranger’ myth.

I bought this book three years ago but finally got around to reading it now together with Fiction Fan (who I gather was not a huge fan of it) and Kelly, who also profoundly disliked Serena as a character. I think all three of us are in agreement that we wished there had been more chapters about the plight of Rachel and her young son.

21 thoughts on “Ron Rash: Serena – a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”

    1. He struck me as very thoughtful when I heard him talking about his work, and he is clearly very concerned with environmental and social issues, so I will certainly read more by him.

  1. I like your Greek Tragedy reference. The “chorus” really did have some of the best dialog exchanges in the entire novel, as far as I was concerned. I believe the author could have made Serena a strong character without making her so cruel and sociopathic. I’m not familiar with the type of eagle in the story, but the kinds I’ve seen would be quite hefty birds to be toting around on a poised arm!

    1. My feeling was that he was at pains to point out that we wouldn’t have seen her as quite such a sociopath if she had been a man. But perhaps women readers would have considered a man to be a sociopath as well… Yes, I did think that eagle sounded rather enormous!

  2. I keep hearing very similar things about this one, Marina Sofia: Serena is unpleasant; the writing is skilled; the descriptions of time, place, environment are very well done. All of that makes curious to see what I think of this story. I didn’t read it when it came out, and am still not tempted, if I’m being honest. But perhaps I’ll try it at some point; ‘never’ is a long time…

    1. It’s certainly made me want to read other books by this author, but I can see why it might not be everyone’s favourite. It was the one that was the main topic at the panel I attended in Lyon, so I bought that one, but his poetry and short stories might be more my pace.

  3. I remember Serena being pitched as a reworking of Macbeth when I was working as a reviews editor. I didn’t include it, partly because of the book’s overblown jacket (not the one you’ve used), but when I did finally read it that made sense. I’m a fan of Rash’s writing, although this isn’t my favourite, and I’d agree with your Haruf comparison.

    1. The author himself said that he considers Serena more like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine than Lady Macbeth. I really want to read more of him – he really does have a great sensitivity towards nature.

  4. I was reading your Twitter and found a photo of you at 20 with your Jewish boyfriend, whom your parents disapproved of. Was that because he was Jewish? If so, yikes!

    1. Yes, afraid so. When we first started going out together, my mother would make comments like ‘Jewish men tend to make good husbands’ (still horrible stereotyping, but at least more positive), but then when it got a bit more serious, they did everything they could do discourage us. I believe anti-semitism played a part (although they will never admit it) but it was also that Jewish families that were requesting to leave the country to move to Israel would then be ostracised in Ceausescu’s Romania, lose their jobs, and anyone close to them would come under suspicion etc. So it might have been that fear as well. We broke up just before the 1989 revolution, when it wouldn’t have mattered anymore.

  5. Interesting to hear your perspective on this book. Guy is right. There is a film with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles. I haven’t seen it, largely because the reviews were pretty lukewarm on its release, and it didn’t particularly appeal. I am a fan of Rash’s writing, though – especially his short stories set in the Appalachians with their insights into character and strong sense of place.

    1. I’m not very keen on either of those two actors, so have not felt any compulsion to watch the film. But yes, the Appalachian background seems to be very strong in Rash’s writing and I’ve just ordered two more of his books.

  6. He does write well, especially when he’s talking about the land and the issues around its exploitation But I think Serena is a dreadful character, and Pemberton too, so I don’t think my view was being influenced by her gender, though who knows what goes on in the subconscious! I don’t remember much about The Cove now except that I thought it was great at the time, and your other commenters have reminded me that I’m sure I have Above the Waterfall lingering somewhere on my TBR. Hopefully there are no mass-murdering psychopaths in it – or if there are, that they’re written a bit more credibly. It seems strange to me that someone who could do so well with the character of Rachel did so badly with Serena. Glad you enjoyed it more than I did!

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