March 2010

Myths, legends and history

By Ron Rash
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The short stories in New York Times bestseller and PEN/Faulkner award finalist Ron Rash's new collection, Burning Bright, flow so seamlessly into each other that the reader is tempted to devour them all in one sitting like a novel. But doing so would mean losing the formidable power of each individual story.

Ranging in time from the Civil War to the current day, the authentically short stories—the longest by far is 29 pages—are tight, hauntingly melancholic studies of men and women in their darkest hours, their remarkable strengths and sobering, fascinating faults, set against the lush, atmospheric backdrop of Appalachia that Rash has so firmly mastered.

From the first story, "Hard Times," about the brutality of family and community survival during the Great Depression, Rash weaves a thread of desperation and longing for brighter days throughout the collection. In "The Ascent," one of two current-day stories dealing with the demon of meth addiction, a young boy finds solace in the company of two frozen corpses; in the title story, "Burning Bright," a recently remarried widow calmly protects her mysterious but loving new husband—who just might be an arsonist—from the town that conveniently forgot her after her first husband's death.

"Falling Star" is the heartbreaking tale of a man who knows his wife has outgrown him and the suspended moment in time just before his unforgivable attempt to keep her is discovered, and in "Lincolnites," a young Civil War wife protects her family's future with an act of intimate, matter-of-fact violence.

The region is a character in and of itself. Its myths and legends and history permeate every story, even if Rash has not obviously placed them within the narrative—though when he does, in stories like "Corpse Bird," about a modern, educated man's fear for a neighbor's child when an owl lands in his tree three nights in a row, it is exquisitely effective.

All 12 stories are worthy, a rarity in many short-story collections, and all call for a slow, careful re-read. Those readers who normally eschew short stories for lacking character development or depth will want to take a chance on Burning Bright, and those who embrace the art form already will want Rash's newest offering in their permanent collection.

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