Saints at the River

Sep 12, 2005

Ron Rash had a distinguished career as a poet and short story writer before his first novel, One Foot in Eden. This is his second novel, Saints at the River. It's a short book and a good read.

Saints at the River

Appalachian mountain culture, north to south, has been very well served these last few years in fiction and nonfiction.

Homer Hickam, now of Huntsville, has written several volumes of memoir, most notably The Rocket Boys, about growing up in Coalwood, a mining town in West Virginia. Silas House of Kentucky has set his first two novels, Clay?s Quilt (2001) and A Parchment of Leaves (2002), in the Eastern Kentucky mining region. Lee Smith of Grundy, Virginia has set most of her novels in the Appalachian mountains of her home state: Saving Grace, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Black Mountain Breakdown, to mention only a few, and it was Lee Smith who told me in no uncertain terms that it was pronounced ?Appalatchia? if you were from there. Robert Morgan?s novel of life in the North Carolina mountains, Gap Creek (1999), was an Oprah book club choice. And of course Rick Bragg, author of All Over But the Shoutin?, continues to set his books in Appalachia, albeit the tail end of the mountains in Calhoun County, Alabama.

Ron Rash, who had a distinguished career as a poet and short story writer before his first novel, One Foot in Eden (2002), has now published his second novel, Saints at the River, the title taken from the hymn ?Shall We Gather at the River,? again set in the mountains of northwest South Carolina.

Rash, the poet, writes beautifully. This short novel should be read especially for the elegant language. The first short section, which sets up the entire plot, is a lyric rendering of a twelve-year-old girl drowning in the Tamassee River. Unlike Sebastian Junger?s clinical, physiological description of drowning in The Perfect Storm, it is beautiful and frightening and sad.

After this poetic prologue, the rest of the story is narrated by Maggie Glenn, a 28-year-old news photographer from the Columbia, South Carolina paper. Tamassee is her hometown, and she is returning to unfinished business, unresolved ?issues,? with her father, brother, and childhood friends. She and her colleague, Allen Hemphill, a distinguished international journalist, are sent to cover the controversy that has arisen after the girl?s death.

The body of Ruth Kowalski, after going over the falls, had been pushed by a powerful river vortex, a hydraulic, up under the falls, and after three weeks is still there?it is too dangerous for divers to risk going into the hydraulic. Ruth?s father and mother have come back to Tamassee to retrieve their daughter?s body and take her home to Minnesota for burial. The conflict begins.

The Tamassee has been declared a Wild and Scenic River and as such cannot be disturbed or altered. Herb Kowalski wants a temporary dam built to divert the water and thus retrieve his daughter?s body. Luke Miller, a passionate environmental activist, to say the least, wants the river left strictly alone.

These are real concerns about which people feel very strongly, but Rash, the novelist, chooses to place much of the action, tension, conflict of the novel in the Tamassee Community Center where meetings and debates are held, and meetings, as all sentient adults know, are rarely exciting.

In a sense, this becomes a novel of ideas. The local villain-developer says the river should serve all the people, not just white-water rafters and campers. Luke, whom Maggie once loved, sees the river as holy, sacred, and therefore a suitable resting place for Ruth Kowalski. Ellen, Ruth?s mother, delivers a heartbreaking plea. She tells the assembled, mostly Protestant audience, that her church believes Ruth?s soul will remain in purgatory until the body is given Last Rites. What if that is true?

This is a genuine dilemma which cannot produce a result that will satisfy everyone, and so the tension builds until the place, literally, explodes.

Saints at the River is a short book and a good read. No one would deny that Ron Rash writes some beautiful English. It may be, though, that this fiction is more an extended incident than a novel and that, finally, not enough ?happens.?