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Rash Reveals Appalachian Roots in 'Burning Bright'

'Burning Bright' by Ron Rash (Ecco)

By Chris A. Henderson, Contributing Writer

Ron Rash was born in Chester, South Carolina and grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and his writing reflects his roots. In “Burning Bright,” Rash pays homage to the land and the people of the Appalachian Mountains in which he was raised.

“Burning Bright” is a collection of short stories which spans roughly 150 years from the closing days of the Civil War to modern times. Although the book tells a variety of stories and hosts a range of narrators, Rash’s stories remain naturally cohesive. The books span a great number of years, but the work remains unified by a strong, organic internal force. Appalachia is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States, and Rash’s work reflects the tenuous relationship that the people of this region have with each other and the land beneath them. The importance of the earth and the communities drives each story together and remains unabated throughout the work.

The presence of this unifying force continually resurfaces throughout “Burning Bright.” In “Dead Confederates,” an aging construction worker struggles to pay the bills for his sick mother’s treatments in the hospital and resorts to robbing the graves of dead Civil War officers in order to make ends meet. In “Lincolnites,” an expectant mother fends for herself on a homestead during the Civil War and is forced to kill and bury a Confederate soldier in order to save herself.

Though not readily apparent, each story is, in some way or another, tied to the earth. The deaths of soldiers and their burial 150 years previous allow a floundering construction worker, through their exhumation, to survive and pay his bills. In “Hard Times” an aging couple deals with the economic hardships of the Great Depression while subsisting off of their farm. Whether providing sustenance or burial space, the earth of Appalachia plays a decisive role in the everyday lives of the people in the region, a role which changes little from the Civil War to the present day.

Even when removed from the Appalachian setting, the conjoining influences of the land and of the shared experiences of characters that have never truly interacted with one another are evident. In “The Corpse Bird,” Boyd Candler, an engineer living in suburbia, mentions that he “had grown up among people who believed the world could reveal all manner of things if you paid attention.” The subtle fluctuations within the earth and within the people in each story reveal some hidden truths about the depth of human emotion, knowledge, and reaction experienced by each narrator. Throughout the course of the collection, it becomes more and more clear that this influence is felt not only in the earth beneath each character’s feet but also in the blood coursing through their veins.

The connection between the brown, Appalachian earth and the people who live in this region is not always immediately evident, but, though disguised, the earth’s magnetism continues to exert itself. In “The Ascent,” a young boy wandering through the woods near his mountain home stumbles upon the scattered remains of a crashed airplane buried in the ground. Inside, he discovers the bodies of two people and removes a wedding ring and a Rolex watch from the corpses. These unearthed items are used by the boy’s parents to buy drugs, illustrating the circuitous ways in which the land exerts itself in the community. More directly, in “Burning Bright,” the short story which serves as the collection’s namesake, a drought prevents farmers from growing or raising any crops as their harvests withers on the dry earth.

As a result of this primitive, organic bond which links each story, the emotions and actions portrayed in the collection are unfettered and, on occasion, brutal. The subject matter of many of the stories is somber, as Rash’s narrators recount situations ranging from an eleven year old with meth-addicted parents in “The Ascent,” to the killing of a dog accused of stealing eggs during the Great Depression in “Hard Times.”

Despite the difficult nature of his material, Rash’s writing remains abrupt and poignant. His prose is condensed and powerful, relaying a host of information and feeling in a limited space. His narrators are varied, ranging from engineers to construction workers, and he showcases his abilities as an author by adeptly assuming new voices every time. The vernacular of each of his characters adds personality to each story, while Rash’s intimate knowledge of the land and the people who live there adds depth and clarity to his work.

Ron Rash succeeds with “Burning Bright” particularly in his effort to weave his experience and knowledge of the Appalachian Mountains and its people into a web of interactions, history, and struggles. It is this central element which allows him to forge a contiguous whole out of dissimilar parts. In a mere 200 pages, Rash is able to capture the raw and luminous lives and personalities of the region’s people.

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