Ron Rash brings his poet’s eye to an unforgiving world in Burning Bright (Harper Collins, $22.99, 224 pp.), a finely crafted, understated collection of 12 stories set in bleak Appalachian outposts where human kindness has grown as scarce as the food on the tables, and poverty, drugs and want have made inhumanity the norm.
The lives of Rash’s characters unfold against the kind of somber backgrounds found in dreams—twilight, darkness, snow, and drought-stricken fields. In most of the stories, farming is dying away and factories and sawmills have closed. The old ways of thriving have all but disappeared, their relics on the way to the pawnshop. Some people have managed to hang onto more than others, but there are other losses they’ll never get over.
What’s left is a red gas can. A “fine blue thread” to repair a homemade quilt. Snowy woods. A scarlet oak in the back yard. Rash doesn’t need much to tell a story—in fact, emptiness brings out the best in him. Rash writes the way the old bluegrass musicians sing: in a stark, high-lonesome voice that’s so plain and pure it’s scary, capturing the yearning and despair of characters who have lost almost everything but their pride.
A couple getting by during the Great Depression watch the slow starvation of a neighboring family in “Hard Times.” The husband wishes his wife would be nicer to the hungry Hartleys, wishes she’s been softer on their own children, who left home in protest at her hardhearted ways. She argues her toughness is what’s kept them from their neighbors’ fate; our kids, she reminds him, “ain’t in a hobo camp or barefoot like Hartley and his clan.” A few stolen eggs, though, test the mercy of both families.
A mountain woman, whose Union husband is away fighting in the Civil War-era “Lincolnites,” finds herself facing down a ragged, renegade Confederate soldier intent on taking her livestock. The measures she takes to defend herself, her child and what few scraps she survives on are all the more chilling for being homespun and near at hand.
In “The Corpse Bird,” an engineer who hears an owl calling in his neighbors’ backyard gets it into his head it means their little girl is going to die. Originally a farm boy, Boyd grew up with people who believed in such things, who lived their lives “by the signs.” Though he left such beliefs behind for college and an engineering degree, a panic for the child’s safety seizes him and leads to a desperate act. Rash gives equal weight to the voice of reason that taught Boyd to turn his back on superstitions—and to the old, deeply-entrenched world of signs and wonders that keeps answering back.
His meth-addicted parents have ensured that 11-year-old Jared, in “The Ascent,” would rather tramp through the snow, with only his imagination to keep him warm, than stay “in the house where everything, the rickety chairs and sagging couch, the gaps where the TV and microwave had been, felt sad.” Forced into the reluctant role of family breadwinner, Jared finds that daydreaming and sitting inside a recently crashed plane in the freezing cold offers more solace—or at least as much—as home.
In the stand-out “Back of Beyond,” Parson makes a living buying family heirlooms and farm equipment from the meth addicts who line up at his pawnshop each morning. “Pawnbrokers, like emergency room doctors and other small gods, have to abjure sympathy,” he says; in his job, he can’t afford sentimentality, not even when his nephew shows up selling things Parson recognizes from the family farm. Parson’s wife says he can’t feel love, period. Yet when a stolen gun shows up that leads to his brother’s house, a shocking scene triggers unexpected loyalties in Parson that drive him to become the family’s unlikely savior.
Rash, too, renounces sympathy in his role of storyteller, but he shares a fierce, steadfast devotion to these lost souls whose dignity and hearts have been ravaged by their efforts to survive. Just as Parson returns to his family homestead to offer the best help he knows, in these spare and haunting stories Rash restores the humanity that trumps the meanness in this world. It may be a thin shard of hope, but it still burns bright.