Coincidence and ignorance, Miss Calicut said, but there had been times in the last year, especially after her father died, that Laurel felt she herself might be a ghost. Did a ghost even know it was a ghost? Days would pass and Laurel wouldn’t see a single living soul. Wasn’t that what a ghost was, a thing cut off from the living?
In World War I-era Appalachian North Carolina, superstitions and ignorance still rule. Laurel Shelton was born with a birthmark that locals in Mars Hill believe marks her as a witch, a suspicion reinforced as tragedy after tragedy strikes the cove where the Sheltons live. Forced to leave school by fearful parents of other schoolchildren, she cares for her ailing father while her brother goes off to World War I, and Laurel is lonely, lonelier still when her father dies, leaving her alone in the cove, where she sometimes doesn’t speak to anyone else for weeks.
Hank returns, wounded but alive, and brother and sister work hard to build up their land when a young mute man changes everything.
As she washes clothes in the stream one warm afternoon, Laurel hears a sweet song, the song of brightly-colored parakeets that once populated the cove. But the song isn’t from those birds, long gone after farmers began killing them. Instead, a man is playing a silver flute, tucked in the trees, hidden away. When she sees the man again, he is covered in yellow jacket stings, near death, and in taking him in, Laurel allows herself to hope for a bit of happiness, a happiness that will be shortlived, as the man has secrets darker and deeper than the cove.
This is a book of interiors, meaning much of what we know or learn is based on the characters’ interior thoughts, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a “show, don’t tell” kind of girl, but Ron Rash knows what he’s doing. Laurel has lived largely in her head, isolated and lonely, so it feels natural that Laurel’s thoughts are the place to which she would turn to narrate her story. Laurel is strong, but she is also heartbreaking. When Walter is preparing to leave, he kisses her briefly, and she tells herself, “Let it be enough. There’s been times you’d not believe you could have even this much.”
Because Laurel is truly an outcast. People cross the street if she is walking on the sidewalk. She is told not to touch the fabric in the dressmaker’s shop, and The Cove highlights outcasts: Chauncey Feith is a much-maligned army recruiter whose wealthy dad is the only reason he isn’t knee deep in trench mud. Slidell lives between the Shelton place and town, symbolic of his daddy’s unpopular stance as a “Lincolnite” and his own position as outcast all these many years later. Then there’s Walter, a man with talent but unable to show or use it because of his past.
Much of the novel is exposition, and it does drag the novel down a bit, particularly as some of these characters aren’t all that well developed. Walter and Slidell, for example, are given cursory scenes in which their pasts are brought forward while Chauncey Feith, the stereotypical coward and army dilettante, has several chapters in which to develop his dastardly character, except as a stereotype, he doesn’t change. It seemed an odd choice to lend him so much of the narrative. Additionally, while much of the novel is slow, detailing Laurel’s everyday activities and the digging of a well, the action at the end is rushed and confusing.
But Ron Rash is a beautiful writer, one that exposes the best and worst of human nature without preaching. Laurel’s happiness is infectious, but it is also apparent that the cove, or at least, those who allow the superstitions of the cove to govern them, cannot leave Laurel be.
The Cove is a novel of hope and dread, ignorance and truth, prejudice and acceptance, evocative of place and time.
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