restricted access The World Made Straight: A Novel (review)
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Whether she's writing as poet or journalist, Anne Shelby's voice is confidentand convincing. Shehasbeendowninthewritingtrenches for years, penning children'sbooks, scripting plays aboutthe late Kentucky writer Belinda Ann Mason and the mining protester/midwife Aunt Molly Jackson and teaching words to hundreds of writers of all ages and experiences. It's about time we have her poems and journalism preserved in these simultaneous releases. What a lucky happenstance for her readers, because what Anne Shelby does best is remind us of all the things we need to be mindful of. Yes, quilts and tobacco barns and hardscrabble farming are here, but so is our need to preserve the environment and a culture, a call for fighting domestic abuse and drug trafficking, and the responsibility of remembering and celebrating our foundation myths, place names, Appalachian speech habits and all of our ghostly ancestors. —Marianne Worthington Ron Rash. The World Made Straight: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2006. 304 pages. Hardcover. $24.00. Thoreau has famously remarked that "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in"; if that's true, then Ron Rash, in his third novel, The World Made Straight, drops his line into the same blue hole. Like the swirling fog and mists whose tendrils form and reform over the meadow at Shelton Laurel, Rash knits together a tale of fragments, of broken characters bucking forces beyond their control, of spaces marked by ghosts and violence, of a history forged through brutality and ignorance. And all this in Madison County, North Carolina, where—in 1863, in this backwoods region shunted along the Tennessee border—members of a Confederate force massacred thirteen Union sympathizers, in the middle of a snow-swept field, their rifle reports echoing into nothingness. "I feel haunted by ghosts," Rash has said, his ancestors participants themselves in the tragic events of "Bloody Madison," a communal act of internecine violence that for a generation has stained the community with unresolved vengeance. Rash captures the essence of that weight—the tug and pull at every step—in the bleakness of this mountain land, how its stark spaces are rife with time, pockets of history swimming with the past like a mirror that conjures the dead. As one character states, "You know a place is haunted when it feels more real than you are." 94 Rash garners writing awards as effortlessly as water running over creek stones. The World Made Straight, like Rash's three volumes of prize-winning poetry (1994 NEAPoetry Fellowship), two collections of short stories (1996 SherwoodAnderson Prize) and two previous novels, One Foot in Eden (2002 Appalachian Book of the Year) and Saints at the River (2004 WeatherfordAward and 2005 SEBABest Book), is thickwith the past and the imprint of history on the land, especially how its grip tangles and complicates the present world likes snags on a trout line. Travis Shelton, a high school dropout who prefers fishing blue holes deep in the Appalachian forest for the elusive speckle trout, one day stumbles upon a cash crop of marijuana plants lining the creek bottom, abountyhe quickly appropriates forhimself, much to the displeasure of the toughbackwoods moonshiner-turned-drug dealer, CarltonToomey. Shortly after, Travis finds refuge with Leonard Shuler, a disgraced high school teacher who now deals dime bags and six-packs to a host of mountain kids like Travis, bent on copping buzzes as they barrel their ways down the long road to nowhere. But Travis, like Leonard himself, is different, and soon Leonard begins to speak of "Bloody Madison" County, the Civil War and a history thatbegins to shape both characters in ways neither is fully aware. Rash has written a beautifully lyrical novel that burrows deep into the heart like a mountain ballad, ringing its notes among the silvered trunks of a dark forest. He has an unfailing ear for this mountain dialect ("There's probably near a million ways a man can die, but I reckon not many would outworse your throat clamping shut on you") as well as a stunning visual eye ("On the stream's banks sumac had blistered to a deep velvety red"), having grownup in the regionhimself, his summers as a boy spent rambling...