Review: Ron Rash’s ‘Something Rich and Strange’

Something Rich and Strange. Ron Rash. Ecco. 448 pages. $27.99.
Something Rich and Strange. Ron Rash. Ecco. 448 pages. $27.99.

For those unfamiliar with the beautiful and searing short stories of Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange is a generous, well-timed introduction.

Rash’s stories tell in crisp, gripping prose the emotional travails of life on the Appalachian outback from Civil War days through the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and encroaching modern urban plagues. All 12 of the stories in Burning Bright are included in this new collection, as are most of those in Nothing Gold Can Stay and many from his other highly praised books over the past 20 years.

It’s a near-comprehensive collection of the best of Rash’s short fiction (University of South Carolina Press is also releasing The Ron Rash Reader, a look at an additional range of Rash’s poetry and prose).

Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University, has won literary acclaim but, with the exception of the novel Serena — due out this fall as a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence — has remained mostly off the national radar. That’s not unusual for short story writers, but Rash has written stories worthy of our best American anthologies.

The first story in this new collection, Hard Times, is a good example. It is unsparing and unforgettable. Like a simply framed Depression-era snapshot, it burns in the memory but wrenches the heart even more painfully.

Rash’s short tales from Civil War days resonate with a human dimension poignant and fearsome. Where the Map Ends is about two runaway slaves: One is older with hair “close-cropped, like gray wool stitched above a face dark as mahogany,” the other a teen with “a lighter complexion, the color of an oft-used gold coin” and hair with “curls tinged red.” These differing shades will map their fate.

Among stories set in more current times, Into the Gorge tracks the loss of innocence as well as property as a man’s homestead of the 1900s is leveled for gated communities, while Chemistry is a glimpse into a mentally distraught schoolteacher’s struggle to find spiritual peace at a snake-handling Pentecostal church in the mountains. Both are powerful and beautifully told.

The scourge of meth is an element of destruction in some of Rash’s stories. These are not always among his best, but one exception is The Ascent. In it, a lonely boy stumbles upon a small airplane that crashed in snowy woods. He is in flight from drug-sick parents who have wrecked his home. Inside the plane, inside the home, more discoveries will unfold.

Something Rich and Strange is filled with many more such chilling and revelatory stories, all with a well-earned place on any bookshelf.

Ron Rash appears 5:30 p.m. Nov. 22 in the Auditorium at Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International.