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.