Laurel Shelton is the central feature of a new and powerful anti-war novel set in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina.
If I made that statement to anyone familiar with North Carolina’s Civil War history, I would be quickly corrected. “No, you’ve got this name reversed. It is Shelton Laurel, the place in Madison County where, during that war, a group of captured suspected Union sympathizers were brutally executed by their Confederate captors.”
But, they would be wrong. Laurel Shelton, the main character in Ron Rash’s new novel,” The Cove,” is a young mountain woman who lives with her brother in a back cove near Mars Hill, the town and the college. It is 1918, and the World War is coming to an end.
Although Laurel is young and reasonably attractive, her prospects for a happy life are slim. Both her parents are dead. Her brother is about to marry and leave her alone on the farm. And, the mountain community believes that she is a witch and that the cove where she lives is cursed. Laurel is shunned whenever she leaves the farm. When she goes into town, people walk across the street to avoid contact and storekeepers discourage her patronage.
A chance for happiness comes in the form of her rescue of a man in great distress, near death, and lost in the forest. He is seemingly mute. He does not speak, but he owns and plays a flute in a stunningly beautiful fashion.
As the stranger recovers and starts to help Laurel’s brother, romance blossoms and Laurel finds the happiness that life in Madison County had thus far denied her. Does it sound more like a romance novel than a dark anti-war one?
Here are some of its features that question the value of making war:
* Laurel’s brother, Hank, has come home from the war with a missing hand. Each day he faces the challenge of doing two-handed farm work with his one remaining hand.
* Other Madison County soldiers are dying in battle in Europe or coming home shattered in body and spirit.
* Meanwhile, recruiting Sgt. Chauncey Feith uses his position to boost his political ambitions by tracking down “pro-Hun” books and faculty members at the college and pushing for their removal. His “patriotism” is a caricature that reminds a reader of Hitler’s Nazism, based on hatred of real or imagined enemies, not real patriotism based simply on unselfish love of country.
* Finally, at the book’s conclusion, passion and hatred of the enemy come together in a brutal, senseless, savage massacre that evokes the memory of what happened at Shelton Laurel during the Civil War.
Did Rash know that he was making this “antiwar” connection to Shelton Laurel? Or was his naming of his character Laurel a coincidence?
There is no doubt in my mind. He knew what he was doing.
Rash was born and bred in the Carolina foothills. He teaches at Western Carolina University. He is thoroughly familiar, if not obsessed, with the history of the massacre at Shelton Laurel. It plays a part in an earlier novel, “The World Made Straight,” which features another member of the Shelton family. Rash’s other writings show his familiarity and interest in Civil War events in the North Carolina mountains.
If Rash knew what he was doing in creating an anti-war novel, he also knows something else. He knows how to create a gripping story of mountain people and mountain life.
With its compelling ending, “The Cove” will, like his other books, most recently “Serena,” become a bestseller by entertaining and entrancing numerous readers who will not recognize and will not care about my opinion regarding the book’s anti-war message.