Like fictional figures from Jane Eyre to Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, the central character in the new novel by Ron Rash called "The Cove" is defined by her place.
And so is Rash, whose best-known previous novel is "Serena" from 2008.
The author, who will sign and talk about "The Cove" (Ecco, $26.99) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, sets the book where his own family has lived for 200 years, in the Appalachian woods and mountains of western North Carolina.
The cove of the title is the location of a misbegotten farm of a hundred years ago. The land is shut off from sunlight by an overhanging cliff, causing the superstitious people of the area to shun the farm's owners, the Shelton family. Young Laurel Shelton's prominent birthmark is considered further proof of a curse.
Like "Serena," also set in western North Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century, "The Cove" is a tale of doomed love. "From 'Romeo and Juliet' on, sometimes the best love stories are tragedies," Rash said by phone from Raleigh, N.C., where his current book tour stopped last week.
Laurel and her brother Hank, who lost a hand to a German sniper while fighting in World War I, work the farm alone after the deaths of their parents. Drawn by the lovely sound of a flute in the woods, Laurel finds a derelict stranger playing the instrument, and though he is mute and his presence inexplicable, the siblings take him in and put him to work. The man -- Laurel's only hope for a romantic connection because of her outcast status -- has escaped from a nearby internment camp, the nature of which is part of the novel's mystery.
Rash said though the camp was a real place in North Carolina history, he made up the cove to suit his story.
"One thing I'm interested in is how landscape affects people's possibilities, the sense of landscape as being destiny," he said. In his stories, "The landscape is so powerful, the characters are psychologically and physically fighting against it."
Rash lives on a mountain ridge near Sylva, N.C., on land his family sold about 100 years ago and that he re-purchased. The author, born in 1953, says, "I have lived all my life within 100 miles of where I grew up." It has inspired in him a fascination with "how mountains affect you psychologically," he said.
He uses the title character of "The Great Gatsby," a product of the open prairies, as a point of contrast. "Gatsby is such a Midwestern character, he has the ability to look forever and imagine anything," Rash said.
"Mountain people, including my own family, are protected by the mountains. It's almost like a womb. But particularly in a valley or cove, where not much light gets in, you're constantly reminded of how small and insignificant you are compared to the mountains."
Rash is Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. Among the regional writers he assigns for reading when he teaches a class in Appalachian literature are Lee Smith, Fred Chappell and Silas House.
"It's kind of interesting with Southern writers," he said. "Some believe they have to leave to write, like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Carson McCullers."
"Others stay: Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor." Rash, of course, counts himself among the regionalists who do not need to roam.
The Booksellers at Laurelwood is at 387 Perkins Ext.
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