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In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on SERENA

Review

In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on SERENA

It has been a while since we have been favored with a book from Ron Rash. While he hasn’t been silent since his novel THE RISEN in 2016, his short-story output has been scattered across a number of worthy though sometimes difficult-to-locate publications. IN THE VALLEY gathers seven of those stories from 2017 through 2020, as well as two works original to the volume: “Ransom” and the titular piece, which is a novella that comprises almost half of the book and serves as a sequel to Rash’s 2008 novel, SERENA. Each is memorable to varying degrees, with some tales featuring his best prose yet.

These stories cross time, even as they stay primarily ensconced within the American South. In “Neighbors,” a widow during the Civil War must hold a secret close to her heart not only from her neighbors but also from a gang of marauders. In the present, “When All the Stars Fell from the Sky” concerns a father-and-son business that is brought to a crossroads by a difficult customer who highlights the passing of a different and better era. “Sad Man in the Sky” is just what the title says, involving a helicopter pilot and his strange passenger with an enigmatic cargo and a poignant errand.

"Each of these pieces shares some elements with the others, including Rash’s remarkable prose, which elevates even the simplest story to an epic tale, and the frequent unpredictability of what does or does not occur."

The past reaches into the present during “L’homme Blessé,” in which prehistoric art seen in a French cave during World War II manifests itself in an isolated North Carolina farmhouse slated for demolition. It is one of the most unusual stories here, surpassing only “The Baptism,” in which a devil of sorts on horseback seeks with ill intent salvation from a reluctant minister and receives both more and less than he expected. “Flight” unfolds like the petals on a flower; here, a probationary park ranger finds a way to deal with her retiring boss and a recalcitrant fisherman. “Ransom” plays out in a similar manner. The daughter of a wealthy man is kidnapped and held for ransom while being treated almost kindly and gently, for reasons that are only gradually revealed and have lasting effects upon all concerned.

The novella “In the Valley” is an interesting addition to this collection. It continues after the close of SERENA and concerns a large plot of land that must be cleared of timber by a certain date so that financial penalties are not imposed. The story is told from a number of different viewpoints, including that of one of the workers as he and others are worked close to death --- and, in some cases, past it --- in an effort to meet a seemingly impossible deadline. Serena Pemberton, now a widow, appears throughout the story as a quiet but extremely malevolent presence, as does Galloway, her enforcer. Meanwhile, the young woman who bore the late George Pemberton’s child out of wedlock lives in fear of Galloway’s inevitable appearance but prepares for him. “In the Valley,” although complete in itself, reads almost like an interlude between SERENA and a yet-unpublished work that will complete the saga at a future date.

This brings us to my two favorite stories. “Last Bridge Burned” concerns Carlyle, the proprietor of a convenience store, who is struggling with sobriety when a hot mess in the form of a young woman shows up at the door after closing time. He is faced with the choice of extending a kindness to her and most likely regretting it. The results of his decision radiate outward in time and space. “The Belt” is terrifying, poignant and suspenseful. It begins quietly enough with an elderly man tasked with watching his great-grandchild, which he has done often before. Fate takes a hand, though, and a choice is made.

Each of these pieces shares some elements with the others, including Rash’s remarkable prose, which elevates even the simplest story to an epic tale, and the frequent unpredictability of what does or does not occur. One can be almost right in guessing what will happen, but never totally on the mark. Yet another is the sharp and memorable characters Rash creates, each of whom puts one in the mind of a friend, acquaintance or relative. You will find all of this and more within the pages of IN THE VALLEY, which is very much worth the wait.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 11, 2020

In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on SERENA
by Ron Rash

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385544294
  • ISBN-13: 9780385544290