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The Cove: A Novel by Ron Rash

The Cove: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Ron Rash

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5183719,555 (3.67)16
There is an ethereal feel to this story, as if the Cove was part of another world. I found myself drawn in by Laurel, a sad and lonely young woman lost to the Cove. Laurel is rather a mix of simple and complex. She speaks simply, she lives simply, she loves simply. However she is not simple-minded. Intelligent and strong, life in the Cove has not broken her. Devoted to a brother that is her world and ostracized by her community, she clings every day to every minute glimpse of beauty that she can find, few as they are in such a desolate landscape.

Her brother Hank is an honorable man who was horribly wounded in the war against the Germans. He and his sister are both viewed as outsiders, living in a Cove that most feel is cursed. However while Hank returns from the war a hero and sees a better life in his future, his sister Laurel will never be anything but cursed, marked at birth as a witch.

The Cove is viewed by the town as cursed, but in seeing the Cove through Laurel’s eyes I came to love it. Quiet and peaceful, it is free of people, since everyone fears it. There are some areas completely in shadow where light never falls, but there are also pockets of beauty where butterflies flit and colorful parakeets skirt across the sky as sunlight glistens in a hidden copse. There is always beauty in life. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder for it.

This is a story of judgement-- people passing judgement that they have no right to pass-- and the story slowly reveals itself, like the peeling of an onion, layer by layer.

I would consider this story to have a didactic theme, with a moral lesson hiding in the story. However there is also something cautionary about it. This story left me feeling melancholic yet hopeful.

My final word: As the title would indicate, the setting in this story is everything. The ethereal feel of the Cove, the darkness, dankness, with pockets of beauty, is haunting. Laurel is one of these hidden beautiful bits. Unfortunately few could see the beauty of the Cove, nor that of Laurel. But I definitely felt the beautiful spirit of this story. I loved it! ( )
  nfmgirl2 | Apr 18, 2012 |
English (36)  Dutch (1)  All languages (37)
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A short but beautifully written story that perfectly evokes place (an isolated mountain community in North Carolina) and time (the last days of WWI). The ending is bittersweet, but satisfying. ( )
  Gingermama | Jan 24, 2016 |
Beautiful, lyrical, Southern (in all the best ways), heartbreaking. The wages of ignorance. I wanted this to be a 5 star, but the villian, Chauncey, was too much a stock character. if he had a bit more dimension it would have made the whole better. Still, the whole was pretty great. ( )
  Narshkite | Oct 7, 2015 |
A haunting, beautiful story with the right blend of suspense, tragedy and history. Ron Rash is a master of blending the environmentalism classic to the Appalachian region with superb historical scenarios. This novel touches on the complexities of Appalachian life, the repercussions of World War 1 and environmental issues such as the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet. ( )
  WritingHaiku | Jun 20, 2015 |
I can't say I enjoyed reading this book but I guess that was the point. It was extremely well written and elicited a response. My stomach hurt as it ended at such waste it portrayed. ( )
  jkgrage | Nov 24, 2014 |
What is a cove? It is a safe harbor, secure from the heavy winds and storms. Just so is the cove in this tale set in pre WWII South Carolina. Laurel, with her birthmark......Hank, her brother, with his amputated hand....and suddenly also, Walter, from Germany who makes beautiful music on his flute. However, the ugly winds of war reach into the cove to disrupt the peace. Well written, sweet, and tough. I lije Ron Rash's writing, his characters, and his style. ( )
  hemlokgang | Jun 21, 2014 |
Laurel's life seems cursed - not by her purple birthmark, or by the dim cove where her family settled, or even by her parents' deaths or her brother's war injury, but by the lifelong prejudice the townspeople hold against her. Things are beginning to look up slightly: though her brother was injured, he did at least return from the war, and he's helping to fix up the farm where Laurel was living alone after their parents' deaths. And now there's someone new in town: a mute flute player who Laurel finds and rescues after he has been attacked by wasps. She nurses him back to health and he begins to help around the farm as well - but who is he, really?

Ron Rash writes descriptively of southeast Appalachia, and though things look up for Laurel briefly, there is no cheery conclusion. This would be a great discussion book for those willing to confront issues of prejudice.


"...I didn't have a choice but to stay. It's like I've never had a single choice in my life. Most people get at least a few choices, don't they?" (Laurel to Walter, ch. 9)

Preacher Goins claimed at her father's funeral that all things human had been decided before God created the world, but Laurel didn't want to believe that. She could turn around and walk back this very moment to town. Or she could pretend she didn't know who Walter really was or tell him to his face she did know. But choose wrong and she would live out the rest of her life knowing it might have been otherwise. (ch. 14)

She had blinded herself before by expecting the best...when her whole life had taught her to expect the worst. If you can't believe some good things can happen in your life, how else can you go on? Laurel thought. (ch. 14)

But dying, even if it was today, wasn't the worst. Being alone in the cove, like last winter, that would be the worst thing. Dead and still in the world was worse than dead and in the group. Dead in the ground at least gave you the hope of heaven. (ch. 14)

...she thought how good it would be to live where no one knew anything about her. People weren't supposed to be friendly in cities, but how could there not be more smiles and nods than here. (ch. 17)

"I want to look at something I can't see the end of. That's how it is, isn't it, endless?" (Laurel to Walter, ch. 21)

What light Hank's eyes held faded, not dying away like an ember but receding like a train headed elsewhere. Chauncy couldn't shake the feeling that wherever the light was going it was taking part of him with it. (ch. 22)

He stared at the mountains and thought how small and fleeting a human life was. Forty or fifty years, a blink of time for these mountains, and there'd be no memory of what had happened here. (ch. 23)

Author Q&A

Part of what I love about fiction is the attempt to embody another consciousness very different from one's own; I see this empathy as akin to what the best literature always does - remind us that as human beings we are more alike than different.

As Eudora Welty has said, "One place understood helps us understand all other places better."

I think the landscape a person is born into has a huge effect on his or her perception of reality...Different climates have different effects on people. I find that fertile ground for fiction.

I believe dialect in fiction is more an art of translation more than mimicry.

We've got politicians to give us the black-and-white. What fiction does best is remind us of the complexity.

From Reading Group Guide

How can one fight against irrational prejudice? ( )
  JennyArch | Jun 2, 2014 |
The Cove is the second Ron Rash novel I've read and, like One Foot in Eden, it is excellent.

What makes Rash one of the best writers I've ever read is his careful use of language. Here's a paragraph from the first chapter:

She pressed the wicker basket against her belly and made her way down the trail. The air grew dank and dark and even darker as she passed through a stand of hemlocks. Toad stools and witch hazel sprouted on the trail edge, farther down, nightshade and then baneberry whose poisonous fruit looked like a doll's eyes. Two days' rain had made the woods poxy with mushrooms. The gray ones with the slimy feel of slugs were harmless, Laurel knew, but the larger pale mushrooms could kill you, as could the brown-hooded kind that clumped on rotting wood. Chestnut wood, because that was what filled the understory more and more with each passing season. As Laurel approached her parents' graves, she thought of what she'd asked Slidell to do, what he said he'd do, though adding that at his age such a vow was like snow promising to outlast spring.

A writing class could be based on this paragraph alone. The rhythm is perfect. The setting is thoroughly described with careful use of detail he's either researched or lived. The characters of Laurel and Slidell are introduced with both physical details and glimpses of how they think. The paragraph ends with a wonderful simile and the choice of the word “poxy” to describe how the mushrooms fit in the scene changes a simple description to a metaphor with dozens of implications.

Ron Rash's book is about loneliness, hate, and insecurity. Laurel has large, purple birthmarks on her shoulders and back, which the early twentieth century residents of Mars Hill, NC believe mark her as a witch, causing them to avoid her as much as possible. While shopping for fabric she speaks out when she knows she shouldn't, showing us her resentment, but also letting us know she doesn't want to be bitter. Chauncey Feith, a military recruiter based in Mars Hill is always trying to prove himself by demeaning others. World War 1 is going on in Europe, but Chauncey's role in it is an easy one. He tries to prove he's as good a soldier as anyone else, but we can feel his self doubt.

The plot is the one area where I thought The Cove fell a bit short, especially when compared to One Foot in Eden. There are critical elements I had trouble believing. Laurel and her brother, Hank, take in a mute man who helps with work on their farm. They are too accepting of his story given Hank's war experience. Also the ending was too neat and depended on a coincidental event.

Steve Lindahl – Author of White Horse Regressions and Motherless Soul ( )
  SteveLindahl | May 8, 2014 |
  tangledthread | Dec 1, 2013 |
The small, isolated community of Mars Hill, North Carolina, continues to cling to the prejudices and Appalachian superstitions of another century in the wake of World War I. Its men have been to fight in foreign lands, encountered the awesome terror of modernized warfare, and yet still harbor a profound fear of a young woman who lives sadly and quietly in a place simply known as "The Cove." Laurel Shelton's life, thanks to the people of Mars Hill, has not been an easy one. Marked by the port-wine stain on her shoulder and by the misfortune of living on land that is believed to be the home of some nebulous evil, Laurel is labeled a witch and ostracized from the community--banned from the school, humiliated by the local boys, and shunned by the proprietors of local businesses. It doesn't help that The Cove seems to consume everything with which it comes into contact; Laurel's parents both die under unfortunate and unexpected circumstances, the blighted chestnut trees begin to die off, and there are fewer Carolina parakeets with every passing year.

When her brother and protector, Hank, leaves for war, Laurel is left alone to fend for herself on the farm and it seems as though happiness will forever remain out of her reach. But Hank returns, having lost a hand to the war, and it seems as though things might finally get better. Hank is getting married, the farm responds to his hard work, and a stranger in the woods may offer Laurel an escape from The Cove's clutches.

Ultimately, The Cove is about the danger of instinctively hating that which we don't understand. Ignorance and intolerance make Laurel an outcast and The Cove itself becomes the physical manifestation of the community's rejection of her for the crime of being "different." Just as the darkness of The Cove absorbs and destroys the beauty of its inhabitants, the human capacity for hatred destroys the most fragile and beautiful among us. To watch as Laurel slowly becomes hopeful that life will hold something better than she's been allowed to expect--to come to believe that she deserves to be allowed this hope--is painfully heart-wrenching. However, there are no happily ever afters here. Just as the cliff looms ominously over The Cove, the foreboding that something will crush this nascent hope pervades the narrative.

Rash's writing is lyrical and simple in the best possible sense; there's no poetic posturing or pretentiousness. To capture such bruised lives in straightforward, lovely language imbues his characters with a genuine and honest dignity.

Two factors prevented me from giving it a 4 star. The first is that I kept measuring this book against Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. While Rash does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the place, he lacks the lush detail of Frazier's work that truly brought the land alive for me as a reader. Frazier's portrayal of two damaged characters, Ada and Inman, is also more nuanced and three dimensional. While Rash's portrayal of Laurel and Chauncey Feith (the villain of the tale, which is made clear from the introduction of this selfish, pompous bastard) is inspired, many of his other characters are little more than well-written stereotypes. The second is that the denouement seems too abrupt in its execution and, while brutal and violent, the emotional punch is lessened by how swiftly events are brought to a close.

Despite these factors, The Cove is a much finer piece of writing than much of what is out there and I look forward to reading Rash's Serena.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder ( )
1 vote snat | Nov 30, 2013 |
This wonderful book is a combination of Appalachian history, an unexpected romance, and the tragedy of World War I. It is woven with lush descriptions of the setting and with believable portrayals of the characters in the story. I can't recommend this book highly enough--read it! ( )
  debherter | Aug 19, 2013 |
A superbly written story...for analysis and discussion,see http://awayofwriting.blogspot.co.nz/ ( )
  michalsuz | May 15, 2013 |
Laurel Shelton is considered a witch by some in Mars Hill, North Carolina because of a large birthmark. As WWI winds down Laurel lives at the family farm with her wounded veteran brother, Hank, who’s recently returned from France minus an arm. They live at The Cove, a dark spot by a river dominated by a sun-blocking cliff. It’s a feared place, seen as sinister by some, another reason Laurel is shunned.

When Laurel finds a mute man, Walter, in the woods after he’s attacked by bees, she nurses him back to health and he stays at The Cove for a while to help Hank bring the farm back to working shape. Laurel and Walter come to love each other.

The ignorance and fear that have made Laurel’s life lonely extends to anything remotely German. Chauncey Feith, a banker turned army recruiter has avoided the fighting due to his father’s influence. He stirs up “hun” hatred in Mars Hill, to the point of harassing a professor who reviewed postcards in German at the local internment camp for security issues. When a German internee, a civilian and musician – not a soldier, escapes the camp, Feith and the other local xenophobes make several fateful decisions.

The parallels in The Cove to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWI and the current lasting and corrosive results of the war on terror are plain. Ron Rash’s writing is clean and beautiful. The Cove is a major accomplishment of writing. ( )
  Hagelstein | Apr 13, 2013 |
The worst ending to a book EVER. ( )
  TWS | Apr 7, 2013 |
An atmospheric, finely detailed novel set in Appalachia during World War I. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
Beautifully written heart wrenching story. ( )
  bksgoddess | Apr 3, 2013 |
A good little outsider tale. Review is up here. ( )
  lisapeet | Apr 2, 2013 |
Read this not too long again, but have had about a dozen novels and a non-fiction book or two float through my head since then. Ron Rash has a gift for words and stories, both of which I respect, but have come to expect as well from his works. This book did not disappoint, though some of the characters in it did. Some nice integration of history, and a sad reminder that we humans are prone to be really stupid at times. I really loved the weaving of the now extinct Carolina Parakeet into the story. I've only seen ones that have been preserved via taxidermy. What a sight that must have been to see flocks of them.

Plot summary available elsewhere. ( )
  bookczuk | Mar 6, 2013 |
In the book THE COVE, the cove is a place where nothing good has ever happened to anyone who lived there. At this point in history, the end of World War I, can that be changed?

THE COVE begins with a mystery in the prologue, then soon after another mystery makes you forget about the first one.

Allow yourself to discover this mysterous story as it was meant to be discovered: as you read it. Don't read reviews. Don't even read the book flap or the back of the book until after you've read it.

And now my rant: most book reviewers spoil books. Most book reviews tell the story before readers gets a chance to read the book and discover the story themselves. Most book reviewers thereby steal the pleasure of reading.

THE COVE is an exceptionallly good book because it is mysterious. But I made the mistake of reading reviews of this book before I read it, and most of them revealed the solution to one of the mysteries. So I was deprived of the pleasure of slowly discovering the story as it was revealed. I might have given THE COVE five stars otherwise.

If you don't make that mistake, you'll love THE COVE.

Thanks to Vera at luxuryreading.com for this book. ( )
  techeditor | Feb 5, 2013 |
Lovely story, sad and reminded me of The Orchardist. ( )
  wbwilburn5 | Jan 28, 2013 |
Laurel Shelton lives with her brother on a small rural farm in the mountains of North Carolina. World War I is winding down and Laurel is shunned by the local townspeople who, in their ignorance have labeled her a witch. A stranger comes to the cove and into Laurel's life. He is unable to speak or write and can give no account of himself but, in spite of these handicaps, he and Laurel form a bond.

The story gently and sympathetically explores human emotions, both good and bad, and the sweet stirrings of hope in even the most hopeless lives. The mystery buried within the story keeps the reader engaged and, ultimately, brings a surprising closure to the story.

Rash clearly knows the area. Given his references to County and State lines, I would judge this hypothetical location to be within half an hour's drive of my home. I wondered whether the name of his heroine, Laurel Shelton, was drawn from the Shelton Laurel massacre a locally known Civil War tragedy. His descriptions of the landscape, of the plantsand animals were accurate and evocative. All in all, an easy, engaging book. ( )
  turtlesleap | Jan 14, 2013 |
Set in the southern Appalachians during WWI, this compelling story defies categorization: southern lit, historical fiction, a war story, a love story, something mysterious and eerie...all descriptions fit, yet none fits perfectly; THE COVE is one-of-a-kind.

Ron Rash writes short books, filled with simple sentences and basic language. Yet there is great magic in his storytelling. He creates a sense of place that is much as I imagine this area would have been in the early 20th century. A strong fear of the unknown permeates his characters, whether that's fear of strangers, fear of Germans, fear of a woman's birthmark, fear of a haunted cove where Laurel lives in isolation with her war-damaged brother. Characters are drawn clearly with little wasted language, and are distinct in their views of life and their treatment of others.

The story drew me along, coaxed me to put off asking a few questions that turned out to be important. This is a very subtle and effective form of foreshadowing, and when secrets were revealed near the end of the story, I said to myself "I should have known." (Not "I knew it!")

Rash's ONE FOOT IN EDEN is one of my favorites of the past decade, and THE COVE will join it on my "keep and read again" shelf. ( )
  SharronA | Jan 8, 2013 |
89 Commendable

Easily one of the finest works of fiction in 2012, The Cove is yet another fantastic Appalachian foray into Ron Rash's regional consciousness. There are tinges of many mountaineer archetypes-the dark cove witch, the wayfaring yankee stranger, war betwixt lovers-but overall this narrative remains stunningly unique by its personal breadth and introspective wit. Gone, unfortunately, are the many moments of thunderous clout that Rash's other novels, like One Foot in Eden, struck in resonating accord. Still, living through the eyes of Laurel, Hank, Walter, and Chauncey, what is seemingly a long-sung Appalachian folk song turns into a poignant battle between love, landscape, and cowardice. ( )
  mattchisholm | Jan 1, 2013 |
In reviews I do my best not to just give my reactions, but the reasons for my reaction, so someone who might like or doesn't care about the things that bother me might still think despite a low rating that the book might be something worth trying, and despite a high rating might think, well, that doesn't really sound like a book for me. The reasons I merely liked, rather than loved this book eludes me. It's well-written, a fast read, rather simple but evocative prose with a good sense of time and place--Appalachia during World War I. How accurate I'm not qualified to judge, but it certainly never jarred me into thinking, no this isn't right. The central characters, Laurel and her brother Hank and the the man who comes into their lives, Walter, are interesting and likable characters--each with their own problems. Laurel, for one, is ostracized by the inhabitants of the nearby college town because she's reputed to be a witch--mostly because of a birthmark. Hank lost an arm in the war. And Walter? Well, that's initially a mystery, although I did guess very early on the nature of it.

And that might be part of why this didn't enrapture me. I didn't feel there were any surprises in this, not even the ending, which I hated, but in the interests of not spoiling the story for others I'll keep to myself the reasons why. It was a pleasant read--but not the kind of novel I expect will stay with me. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Dec 30, 2012 |
The setting is during WWI in a rural, mountain community in NC that is full of superstition and prejudice. Hank and Laurel Shelton work the land and nurse the physical deformities that each contains. Hank has lost a hand to the war and Laurel has birthmarks that the community believes to be the markings of a witch. Only one old man of the community befriends this brother and sister, until a mute stranger appears. Of course, the reader is given a little insight into the stranger to know that he is hiding something. The language is poetic like the running of a mountain spring, but as with the mountains, the ending is difficult to swallow. ( )
  delphimo | Nov 4, 2012 |
This is a beautiful and heartbreaking book. Set in the Appalachians during WWI and hate towards Germans is running rampant with the help of one fervent recruiter Chauncey who is on a witch hunt for anything German. At the same time on a farm in the cove lives Laurel a young woman with a wine splotch birthmark that people in town say is a curse and call her a witch and the townspeople won’t let her go to school because she may harm their children. A superstitious lot they are, that makes for a lonely life for Laurel, she does have her brother Jack who is back from the war missing a hand but alive. When one day she hears the most beautiful flute music and sees a raggedy man a few days later she finds him covered in bee stings and brings him home. Walter recovers but seems to be a mute but that doesn’t stop sparks from flying between him and Laurel.

I cared so much about these characters that towards the end my stomach was knotted with worry and when events played out I was bawling (should not have been listening to this at work!). This book evokes the times and the place I felt like I was there. It is a love story but so much more it is about the human condition and how people can be so incredibly hurtful towards others. I loved Laurel and felt so bad for the way she was treated and even though I figured out certain things about Walter, it didn’t matter, he was one of the few people to show a kindness towards laurel and I think it was what they both needed.

Merritt Hicks’ narration was spot on her southern accent was great and her characters were all very distinct I always knew who was talking. I will definitely listen to this narrator again!

As I said this novel is beautiful and heart wrenching all at the same time, this is my first book by this author and will not be my last! I think fans of southern fiction and historical fiction will like this one.

4 ½ Stars ( )
1 vote susiesharp | Sep 4, 2012 |
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