Ron Rash has a unique talent for balancing the jarring impact of beauty versus violence. In this novel set in the western North Carolina mountains, the Boston Lumber Company resists the government’s demand for a national park. In 1929, the market crash has given owners Pemberton, Buchanan and Wilkie unexpected opportunities, land suddenly become available for purchase in a deeply troubled economy.
But when George Pemberton and his new bride, the formidable Serena, step from the train from Boston to Waynesville, NC, none of the partners are aware of the impact the new Mrs. Pemberton will have on her husband’s life. The first order of business is waiting at the station: an outraged, drunken father, whose daughter is visibly pregnant.
A shaky Harmon wields his Bowie knife to Pemberton, demanding satisfaction for his daughter’s honor. To everyone’s surprise, Serena agrees with Harmon, prompting her husband to deal with the matter at hand. As Harmon clutches his spilling intestines, Serena states flatly to Rachel Harmon: “That’s the only one of his you’ll have.”
With ruthless efficiency, the Colorado-bred bride injects herself into her husband’s affairs. The inseparable pair often make ruthless business decisions together, Serena as capable as any man working the timber. The Pembertons think as one person, George particularly proud of his wife’s physical stamina and quick intelligence, grateful he has found her, although she believes it was meant to be.
Soon Serena is riding her white Arabian stallion out with the timber crews, an eagle perched on her saddle like a falconer of medieval times, a blonde Valkyrie cutting a swath through the grimy workers who eviscerate the Pembertons’ trees at great risk. Death stalks these men at every turn, one careless move delivering a fatal blow as the casualties mount with more difficult terrain. The lush North Carolina mountains are decimated by the cutting, stripped of their beauty by avaricious owners.
Pemberton is in thrall to his wife, whose coldhearted decisions are implacable. Silently he assents, unable to resist the clarity of her vision, his moral center swept away by Serena’s powerful personality. It would seem everything is perfect for this ruthless couple whose money purchases freedom from justice or recrimination. But when Serena learns she cannot bear children after a tragic pregnancy, she sets her sights on the final obstacle: Rachel Harmon and her young son, Jacob.
Rash’s handling of this quest, raptor in pursuit of prey, is superb. The innocent Rachel flees the wrath of a woman who would see her and the child dead. In a classic conflict of good and evil, Serena reaches out, Rachel running for her life, pursued at every turn. In a brilliant tour de force, Rash delivers a heart-racing climax and a shocking betrayal, proving that occasionally good may triumph over evil.