Ron Rash is one of the great writers of his generation, his vision and compassion revealing the intricate pathways of human behavior, particularly in the Appalachian landscape. In all his work, be it novels or short stories, Rash creates believable characters, whether imbued with religious fervor or beaten down by life’s inequities, a broad swath of good and evil, love and hate and the random circumstances of fate.
This collection is no exception, small, bright vignettes that plumb the psyches of men and women who live in a demanding environment where comforts are few and costly: “There’s always a price to be paid for anything you get.” The most memorable story is the first of the collection, “Hard Times.” At the height of the Depression, food is scarce, many going hungry in a place that yields little sustenance. When eggs begin disappearing from a man’s henhouse, his suspicious eyes settle on anyone who might be a thief. The man lays a trap, catching his prey in a truly heartbreaking scenario that is both intimately violent and unforgettable.
From the Civil War years to the Depression to current times, Rash finds inspiration from every facet of life, the hardscrabble poor to the meth-addicted, who seize on any object of value to sell for a fix. In “Back of Beyond,” a pawnbroker is confronted by a daily influx of meth addicts, only to find his brother and sister-in-law living in a tattered trailer, their home overrun by a junkie son and his fellow drug abusers. Even then, a mother’s desire to protect her son overrules her own best instincts.
Equally harrowing in its implications, “The Ascent” is the sad tale of Jared, who discovers unexpected booty when he locates two dead bodies in a small plane that has crashed in the Great Smokies just before Christmas. The thrill of his treasure hunt is short-lived, hope going up in smoke as the boy retreats to fantasy in a world that offers scant comfort to a child.
Then there is the crisis of conscience for a desperate man who joins another in grave-robbing for Confederate treasures in “Dead Confederates.” The grave robber describes his cohort as having “a big old sow belly that sways from side to side when he takes a notion to work.” This venture ends in profit but also delivers a lifetime of nightmares in a harrowing blend of past and present.
These stories are but an example of the fine collection Burning Bright. Rash displays an impressive mastery of time and place, nature’s brutality as stunning as its beauty, a cruel bounty, the human heart laid bare and vulnerable.