Yikes, is she ever. Wearing her leather jodhpurs and black boots, she strides through the story that follows with frightening self-confidence. She speaks with unquestioned authority to Pemberton's employees, rough-hewn men who've lived in these isolated hills for generations. The orphaned daughter of a wealthy timber man in Colorado, she immediately impresses even the most skeptical lumberjacks with her shrewd knowledge of the business. She can calculate board feet just by glancing at a towering tree, and though she attended finishing school in New England, she prefers the Spartan accommodations of her husband's Appalachian camp. "Money freed to buy more timber tracts," she reassures him. Drill, baby, drill!
Rash portrays them as the perfect power couple, not a match made in heaven, perhaps, but someplace much lower. "Their meeting wasn't mere good fortune," Serena insists, "but inevitability." A strapping, commanding man of 27, Pemberton is thrilled to have found a woman so in tune with his spirit, even if she sometimes pushes him toward actions more deadly than prudent. Nothing heats up their bed more than rubbing out a too-cautious investor or a potential opponent. Holding Serena in his arms, feeling her "severe keenness," he's filled with "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility."
Serena is a blazing expansion of a short story in Rash's 2007 collection, Chemistry. Among other things, the longer form gives Rash room to set the ambitions of this rapacious couple against a seminal moment in the environmental movement. Even as Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding every mountain in Appalachia, the secretary of the interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, is aggressively buying up and seizing property for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Owners like Pemberton could make a fortune by raping the land before they lost or sold it to the government. Rash gracefully folds this history into his fictional drama and includes several other real-life figures, such as the nature writer Horace Kephart.
The political battle that rumbles in the background of the novel is all too sadly reminiscent of the one we're still fighting over vast tracts of untouched land. Rash, who teaches Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, constantly reminds us of what's at stake: "As the crews moved forward," he writes, "they left behind an ever-widening wasteland of stumps and slash, brown clogged creeks awash with dead trout. . . . The valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal."
But Rash's description of the laborers is filled with awe for the hellish conditions they endure, working six 11-hour shifts a week, in all weather. When winter arrives, frostbite is a fair trade for snakebites. In startling, brief scenes, we see men sliced, impaled, drowned and crushed. "Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," he writes, "because once the cutting began a man had to watch for axe blades glancing off trees and saw teeth grabbing a knee and the tongs on the cable swinging free or the cable snapping. . . . If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you'd gain an extra worker every month." As the Depression grinds on, though, there are always cheap, willing replacements.