By Ron Rash
Setting a story in Appalachia during the dark days of World War I promises a certain gloominess to the tale. And while Ron Rash delivers that in “The Cove,” he also spins a moving tale of the hardships faced by two siblings as they fight for their existence in the hills of Appalachia.
Laurel is a young woman of some beauty, marred by a prominent birthmark that leaves the superstitious people of her rural community convinced she’s a witch. Her brother, Hank, is home from the war but minus a hand he lost in battle. Yet he’s engaged to be married and works hard as a farmer to prove himself worthy to his intended’s father.
Part of what makes Hank’s job harder is where he and Laurel live―in the cove, deep in the shadow of a cliff on land that neighboring folks believe is cursed. Before the war, they shunned the brother and sister, crossing the street to avoid them and sometimes spitting in their paths or peppering them with eggs. Now with Hank back from the war, they focus their cruelty on Laurel alone.
So Laurel, now in her early 20s, becomes reclusive. She goes for weeks seeing no one but her brother and an elderly neighbor, Slidell, who helps with the farm chores and has become something of a surrogate father.
Hank is planning for life as a married farmer, not knowing how to tell Laurel he will leave the cove. But at the same time, Laurel crosses paths with Walter, a man who claims he cannot speak but displays brilliant musicianship with his flute. She finds him, sick from bee stings and bedraggled along a riverbank, and tends to him. Soon enough, he is working side-by-side on the farm with Hank and falling into a flirtation with Laurel. But even though Hank and Laurel want him to stay―for very different reasons―he is bound for New York and a career as a musician.
When Laurel and Hank go to town, they encounter an overzealous recruiting officer, Chauncey Feith. He’s thrilled to talk big about fighting the Germans and demanding everyone do their part for the war, but most of the townspeople also note, pointedly, that he remains safely at home. Chauncey is a lot like a comedian’s heckler, or a football fan blasting a player. A big mouth in a coward’s body.
When Chauncey encounters a veteran who lost an eye, the veteran sees through his veneer of patriotism: “The first time he’d seen Estep since his return, Chauncey saluted and Estep didn’t return the salute, just glared at Chauncey with his one eye like Chauncey had been the one who sent the mortar round into his trench. Estep went around Mars Hill telling anyone that the war was nothing more than a bunch of men killing each other for a few acres of mud.” Of course, Chauncey takes exception to such remarks, saying they hurt morale ― not to mention his recruiting efforts. Chauncey has something to prove.
And he tries to prove it when he learns Walter’s secret and goes after the siblings he thinks have been helping him. This is a tale of treachery, superstition and fear, but Rash tells it well, bringing Laurel, Hank, Walter and the cowardly Chauncey to vivid life. (MCT)