BOOK REVIEW: The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

The World Made Straight by Ron RashThe World Made Straight
By Ron Rash
Completed March 9, 2012

Ron Rash was recommended to me by a book friend after I vacationed in the Appalachian mountains. I love discovering new authors, especially ones who use their settings as an important part of their storytelling. My friend sent me a copy of The World Made Straight to get me started, and I have to say: I am very intrigued by Rash’s writing.

The World Made Straight focuses on two main characters: Travis, a hothead teenage boy, and Leonard, a former teacher turned drug dealer. As the story unfolds, we read as Travis begins stealing pot plants from a crop he discovers while fishing. He sells the marijuana to Leonard – and for good money – which is why Travis keeps going back to steal more. However, the owner of the marijuana field – the gloriously villainous Carlton Toomey – doesn’t take kindly to thievery, and eventually catches Travis – literally. Travis flees to Leonard to recover from his wounds and to stay away from his father, who beat Travis for his acts of foolishness.

Once living together, Leonard becomes a surrogate father for Travis, encouraging him to get his GED and telling him stories about a Civil War massacre that occurred in the mountains, which involved Travis’s ancestors. The Civil War story piques Travis’s interest in learning again and slowly begins his turnaround – until a fateful night when Travis’s temper gets the best of him again.

The World Made Straight is all about correcting past mistakes – to put things “straight’ again. Sometimes, these acts of redemption were vengeful, others were virtuous. With this theme, Rash creates a page-turning book with simple storytelling. His writing style reminds me of Stewart O’Nan with the atmosphere of Charles Frazier. The characters and setting were spot on; however, I had an issue with the Civil War back story. Living in the American South, I know some wounds run very deep, but the “them vs. us” tone was a little much.

All in all, I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Ron Rash, and I look forward to reading more stories by this Appalachian writer. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Nightwoods by Charles FrazierNightwoods
By Charles Frazier
Completed September 26, 2011

Charles Frazier is a dynamic writer. His sentences are beautifully crafted, conjuring up images that put the reader right into the story.  His first book, Cold Mountain, was nothing short of phenomenal. When his second book, Thirteen Moons, was released several years ago, I began reading it with eagerness – only to stop midway, disappointed with the plot and characters. So, when Nightwoods became available, I wanted to give Frazier another try. People have sophomore slumps, and I was hoping that was the case for this talented writer.

Nightwoods is the story of Luce, a young woman whose personal life was marked by tragedy and bad family relationships. She agrees to become the caretaker of an old, abandoned lodge in the North Carolina mountains – a place where she can be alone and away from people who inevitably hurt her. Tragically, Luce’s sister was murdered, and the state wants to place her sister’s twins into Luce’s care. When the twins arrive, Luce knows she has her work cut out for her. The twins, Dolores and Frank, won’t say a word and have a liking to starting fires. Luce, once alone and carefree, must now accept her fate as a guardian of very troubled children.

Luce’s situation is compounded when her sister’s husband (and murderer) arrives in town, looking for money that he believes Luce is in possession of. Bud is a no-good, violent man, and Luce knows he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Frazier’s superb writing style is in full force throughout Nightwoods. The reader gets a look at North Carolina mountain life – the good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, I felt Frazier went to some extremes with his characters, especially the twins and their adventure during the last chapters of the book. As a fan of character-driven stories, this was a disappointment for me. But I am happy that Frazier seems to be on his game again, as Nightwoods is certainly a better story than Thirteen Moons.

So if you loved Cold Mountain like me, go ahead and get a copy of Nightwoods. Know it’s not perfect – but sit back and lavish in the wonderful writing of Charles Frazier. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumbThe Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Completed August 12, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest installment in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels, was inspired by the Appalachian folk tune about a young man who killed a woman and was set to die for his crimes. McCrumb did an amazing amount of research in Wilkes County, North Carolina, to uncover what could have happened to Tom Dooley (who was really “Tom Dula”). The end result was a fast-paced, climatic story that presents a plausible explanation to the case.

The story was told by two observers: Pauline Foster, a poor, country woman who had a raging case of syphilis and sociopathic tendencies; and Zebulon Vance, the former governor of North Carolina who was assigned to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. Through Pauline’s narratives, we learned about Tom Dula and his lover, Ann – a narcissistic belle who got men to do whatever she wanted. Pauline was Ann’s cousin, and was jealous of Ann’s beauty and sense of entitlement. Pauline wanted to knock Ann down a peg or two. When Tom began to sleep with another cousin, Laura Foster, Pauline saw her opportunity. She invented stories about Tom and Laura’s affair, planting seeds of jealousy in Ann’s quick-tempered head.

In between Pauline’s scheming, we have the narrative of Zebulon Vance, an out-of-office Confederate politician who needed to work as a lawyer to earn money. Zebulon was a mountain man too, though much more refined than his defendants. Through his eyes, we saw Tom as a down-on-your-luck, star-crossed lover boy who would do anything for Ann. I liked Zebulon’s narrative, but at times he repeated himself. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or an error in editing,  but it added some charm to his side of the story.

Through The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb painted a picture of a restless, post-Civil War youth. Young people were scarred from the war – both men who fought in battles and women who struggled to survive on the home front. Times were hard – and when you weren’t plowing a field or making biscuits, you reached for easy entertainment: homemade whiskey and gratuitous sex. As this story showed, sometimes your vices could lead to your death.

Fans of Southern fiction are sure to like Sharyn McCrumb’s easy writing style and eye for history. I know I did, and I look forward to checking out more of her books from the Ballad Series. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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