Western Carolina magazine presents an exclusive sneak preview of the new novel by Ron Rash

The literary world and the WCU community look forward to the arrival of the latest novel by Ron Rash, the university’s Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture. Titled “The Cove,” the 272-page work is scheduled to be released April 10 by Ecco/Harper Collins.

Set in Western North Carolina during World War I, the novel tells the story of a mountain woman, Laurel Shelton, who lives in an isolated cove with her brother, Hank, a war veteran recently returned from France. One day Laura finds a stranger, Walter, who has been nearly stung to death by yellow jackets, and she nurses him back to health as she falls in love. But a local Army recruiter who is rabidly anti-German suspects Walter is not the person he claims to be and threatens to ruin all the couple’s hopes for the future.

All of Rash’s novels have begun with a single image that refuses to leave his mind, and in the case of “The Cove,” that image was of “a young woman peering through the branches of a rhododendron bush and seeing a bedraggled man playing a beautiful silver flute.” Rash began working on the novel in September 2008, but after a year the story “flat-lined” and he dropped the book several times as a lost cause. Finally, Rash said, the story revealed itself as he deleted 100 pages, added 50 new pages, and “the novel I had been waiting for finally emerged.”

Rash’s new book is collecting favorable reviews even before its official release. “The Cove” was a Publishers Weekly “Pick of the Week” in early January, and a reviewer wrote that “The gripping plot, gothic atmosphere and striking descriptions, in particular of the dismal cove, make this a top-notch story of an unusual place and its fated and fearful denizens.”

Rash’s eight other fiction books include the short story collection “Burning Bright,” which garnered him the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for the short story literary form, and the best-selling novel “Serena.” Filming is expected to begin soon on a motion picture adaptation of “Serena,” with actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence cast in the lead roles.

Last fall, Rash was announced as one of six North Carolinians chosen to receive the state’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award. Rash was presented the award in a November ceremony at the N.C. Museum of History. Other recipients for 2011 included musician Branford Marsalis and former U.S. Rep. H. Martin Lancaster.

An excerpt from “The Cove”

Wednesday morning after the men went to the pasture, Laurel stood before the books on the make-shift shelf. She reached out and ran her index finger down each one. Keep reading and studying them, Miss Calicut had told Laurel that September when school started again, that way you can stay caught up until enough parents simmer down and realize how silly they’re acting. By then your father may be sprier too. Even with all the meanness Laurel had endured from other pupils, Miss Calicut had made school the best place she’d ever known. Everywhere in the classroom there was something special – on the back wall a map of the United States and all around it pictures of those different states – a beach in Florida with white sand and a blue ocean, beside it a field of purple wildflowers in Nebraska, another picture of buildings in New York so tall they were called skyscrapers, another of an orange canyon in Texas. There’d been a globe in the room and Laurel could spin it and the whole world pass before her, each continent a different color. Miss Calicut had a big table next to her desk too, and on it were boxes with pretty rocks and a glass case with butterflies and moths. Real American and North Carolina flags stood by the doorway and close to them a shelf you could pick a book from to borrow over a weekend. Even now, sixteen years later, Laurel had seen more of the world in that one classroom than anywhere outside it.

Miss Calicut was young and pretty and she knew all sorts of interesting things about different places, like what people wore and ate, and if the country had mountains or deserts and what kinds of animals. When Miss Calicut read books aloud like Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations she changed her voice for the different people in the book and it seemed you knew those people in the realest sort of way. Miss Calicut was always bringing in a plant or bug and once even a live snake and she’d feature something about it that you didn’t know. Best of all, she made Laurel feel different in a good way, doing small things like hugging Laurel every morning or letting her take the roll or ring the recess bell. One time when a town girl teased about her homespun dress, Miss Calicut told Laurel that the other girl was jealous that her own mother couldn’t sew. Whenever she made the highest test grade or won a spell down, Miss Calicut bragged on her and said Laurel had the smarts to be a tiptop schoolteacher, said it in front of the whole class. On that last day, Miss Calicut had given her the seventh grade textbooks and a brand-new dictionary. For Laurel Shelton, with great expectations for one of my favorite students, Miss Calicut had written on the dictionary’s first page. She’d hugged Laurel and said that as bad as things were they’d get better. It will be good teacher practice for you, Miss Calicut told her, you’ll be your own pupil. Laurel had studied the books all that fall, working out the ciphering, reading, even making up tests for herself. She’d taught Hank some too, though he soon lost interest. But her father had got more needsome every day, and by the new year all the books were skiffed with dust.