- Burning Bright
Followers of Appalachian Literature have enjoyed seeing Ron Rash, whose family has deep roots in the Carolina mountains and who teaches at Western Carolina University, achieve increasing recognition for his writing. Last year this process culminated in his story collection, Burning Bright, receiving the Ireland-based Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. His 2009 novel Serena, a New York Times bestseller, was a finalist for the 2009 pen/Faulkner Award, and Saints at the River (2004) was awarded Fiction Book of the Year by the Southeastern Booksellers Association and Book of the Year by the Southern Book Critics Circle.
Burning Bright is a collection of twelve stories spanning a period of time from the Civil War to the present, and, although the stories are not presented chronologically, one may easily trace the most besetting problems of their related time periods, from the "Hard Times" of the depression through the methamphetamine epidemic raging through much of Appalachia in the twenty-first century. Rash has admitted that most of his writing begins with a vivid image, and certainly readers will not forget the image in "Hard Times" of the starving neighbor child discovered in the henhouse, a fishhook caught in her mouth. Jacob has caught his egg thief, but his compassion for the child prevents his sharing with his wife the identity of the miscreant. Hard times indeed, when hunger and desperation harden the hearts of farm wives, yet Jacob manages to hang onto his humanity. Edna's cynicism and sternness have been largely responsible for their daughter's leaving home, never to return, and Jacob finds some redemption in covering up the source of the crime, perhaps saving the young neighbor girl from severe punishment. The girl's father had cut his own dog's throat on the spot, when Edna had voiced her suspicions that the dog had been stealing eggs. Jacob, no doubt, feared harsh repercussions for the young girl if her father discovered her thievery. Jacob lies awake after telling his wife he has caught and killed the snake that was responsible for taking the eggs. The closing sentence is remarkable for its resonance: "He imagined cities where blood stained the sidewalks beneath buildings tall as ridges. He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was." Set in the Great Depression, "Hard Times" still strikes a chord today, especially with the economic crisis of the current decade. [End Page 102]
"Hard Times" opens the collection, but it is set, chronologically, about halfway between Rash's earliest and most recent offerings. In "Ascent" Rash presents a young boy with parents who are meth addicts. Rash refuses, however, to vilify the parents, but instead shows their pathetic efforts to provide a Christmas of sorts for Jared.
The issue of meth addiction and abuse continues in "Back of Beyond." Here the protagonist, Parson, is a pawnbroker who purchases stolen items from meth addicts. He is divorced, has no children, and no apparent personal connections, yet Parson steps in when he realizes that his older brother Ray is being terrorized by his own son. Rash refuses to sentimentalize Appalachia, instead pointing out the preponderance of methamphetamine usage among the young. The problems are complex, as are Rash's characters.
The title story "Burning Bright" centers around Marcie, a widow with little hope for future happiness. Rash sets the scene; the weather is hot and dry: "The worst drought in a decade, the weatherman had said" (107), an arsonist is on the loose: a "third fire in two weeks, the talk on tv" (107), and her new husband Carl carries a cigarette lighter she bought for him as a wedding gift. Two of the stories, "Return" and "Waiting for the End of the World," are more aptly described as sketches. Rash manages to cover themes such as superstition ("The Corpse Bird"), jealousy ("Falling Star"), greed ("Dead Confederates"), and loneliness ("The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars"), but his treatment is fresh and, in some instances, shocking.
Most of the stories depict desperate people, the down and out...