It ain’t a secret: the Tar Heel State claims a hefty swath of the nation’s literati. In the same way that we boast the best of so many things – sweet potatoes, barbeque, whatever kind of pharmaceutical alchemy they’re working on in RTP – North Carolinians can proudly point to enclaves like Hillsborough and rattle off a list of impressive names a few paragraphs long. Obviously bookstores, particularly indie ones, often rely on local authors and publishers. They’re our lifeblood, and if it’s between Jill McCorkle and Jodi Picoult, you know which lady’s wares we’re rooting for you to buy.
In this post, I want to highlight an author whose work has had me smitten of late. While not exactly local-local (he lives and teaches in Cullowhee, NC, at Western Carolina University), Ron Rash certainly deserves a high rank among our state’s authors. Often anthologized, even more often critically acclaimed, and beloved by North Carolinians and out-of-staters alike, he’s a master at encapsulating a sense of place & geography in his short stories.
I recently became smitten with Burning Bright, an anthology of stories published here there and everywhere (for example: Tin House, the Oxford American, the Best American Short Stories series...). Part of the collection’s appeal stems from its lack of what some might deem “consistency.” These yarns jump from century to century, beginning with a Depression-era farm, jumping to present day, and concluding with a woman defending her homestead during the Civil War.
There are two uniting factors I can perceive, the first one being pretty quintessential to “regional” literature. Every tale has a distinct sense of place, from the new Asheville housing development in “The Corpse Bird” to the sinuous mountain path home in “The Return.” Additionally, all of these characters are hard up in some fashion or another -- death of a parent, drug addiction, money struggles, and the like.
Basically, I’m impressed with this book because it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not, and it’s still something pretty remarkable. Rash is a professor of Appalachian studies, and it shows. The guy knows his stuff without being a showboat. It doesn’t seem like there’s any agenda layered underneath these stories -- only a desire to share a slice of life that, in many cases, is fast disappearing under the weight of modernity.