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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

Page Two of Reviews

 

SERENA

By Ron Rash

Published by Harper Collins; © 2008 , Hardcover; 371pp

 

A friend suggested Serena to me. It had been the assigned reading for her monthly book club, and she wanted my opinion on it, since she and one other had been the only positive voices in the recent discussion of the book. The concern voiced by the other members was that the title character and her spouse were unpleasant, evil people, with no redeeming qualities.

“Well,” my friend remarked, “so what?” Had they never read any of the great tragedies of Shakespeare, let alone the modern authors who produce books that are full of avarice and murder?

It is fascinating to think that people who read books these days demand “nice” characters, or happy endings. Perhaps we are all brainwashed by romance novels and feel-good sitcoms. At the very least, I suspect that my friend needs to seek out another book club.

I found Serena to be a brilliant creation, with first-rate writing and a well-balanced plot. It is a tale of ruthless ambition and intrigue concerning the rape, by logging, lumber and pulp companies, of thousands of acres of the beautiful Smoky Mountains. The story is set in the late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s, when J.D. Rockefeller Jr. and several others, including the Vanderbilt heiress at Biltmore, were trying to create the vast Smoky Mountain National Park.

Ron Rash gives us a penetrating look into the assorted forces trying to stop the creation of the park. The large paper mills and pulp companies bought every bit of timber the logging outfits could produce, and the results of their clear-cutting and reckless land use left scars that have taken generations to heal, if heal they have.

Rash’s central characters are the Pembertons. During a trip to Boston, Pemberton, one of the partners in a huge logging operation, meets and falls for the compelling, tough Serena. She is the daughter of a man who ran a lumber company in Colorado, and while much of her background is obscured, we learn that her family all died in a mysterious fire.

Serena is one tough woman. She rides a white Arabian horse (wedding present from Pemberton) and keeps an exotic eagle on her wrist, having trained it to hunt like a falcon. She can out-shoot, out-ride, and out-work any man in the lumber camp. She also can estimate the number of board feet in a felled tree better than the most expert fellow in the camp.

Serena’s ambition has no bounds, and her methods of achieving her ends are truly horrific. Pemberton, her husband, is a close second. The story opens with their arrival in town, met at the station by his partners and also by a man named Harmon, whose daughter is pregnant with Pemberton’s child. He attacks Pemberton, who promptly kills him as Serena eggs him on, and claims self-defense despite the fact that they provoked the attack. The murder goes unpunished.

This is a multi-layered tale, and we follow not just the loggers, but also the mountain folk, including Rachel Harmon, who bears Pemberton’s bastard son. Her hardscrabble life and strong spirit infuse the novel with its moral weight, contrasting sharply with the wicked and cruel Pembertons.

The jacket blurbs of this book compare it to everything from the Bible to Macbeth, and while such hyperbole is to be expected on the back of a book jacket, they’re not far wrong. It is a serious exploration of the depths and the heights of the human spirit, a tale of degradation and of the gritty determination to survive, and — as the coda brilliantly tells us — of revenge.

As long as you can be satisfied with ultimate justice and don’t require a happy, feel-good ending, you will be deeply moved by this book. It qualifies as a serious a work of literature, and I hope that all those award-giving organizations will give Ron Rash the attention he richly deserves.

Julia Sneden

And Consider This: A DVD

FAT ROSE & SQUEAKY

Hannover House and ETC Group Entertainment; DVD – 144 minutes

Written & produced by Virland Stan Harris, © 2006

Available at Amazon.com, Hollywood Video, Netflix

The other day, a brilliant, active, 80-year-old friend of mine complained that her five children had ganged up on her to perform what they referred to as “an elder intervention,” demanding that she close down her home and move to a retirement community. It’s amazing how fast my resentment rose to join with hers. I found myself agreeing with her that the idea was preposterous, despite the fact that I knew she had burned through a couple of small saucepans within the past month, and lost her glasses twice that very afternoon (they were perched on her head both times).

If it doesn’t take much to start those same juices flowing in you, you will enjoy Fat Rose & Squeaky, a lighthearted but heavy message film now out on DVD. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but the story will resonate with those of us who are determined to stay in control of our lives, and to protect what we have.

The title characters are “boarders” who dwell in the mind of Bonnie Ash Fitzpatrick (Louise Fletcher), a widow who lives in a wonderful old house in San Jose, CA. She copes with living alone, but is continually bullied and abused by Fat Rose and Squeaky, whom she accuses of drinking her beer, or knocking her down, or stealing the money she keeps hidden in various books along her well-filled shelves. It doesn’t bother her that no one else can see these boarders: they are very real to her.

Bonnie copes with the isolation of old age and perilous times by keeping her pistol altogether too readily to hand whenever the doorbell rings. Her neighbor and best friend, Celine Snow (Cicely Tyson), must work hard to persuade her that it is indeed she at the door, coaxing Bonnie to undo the many locks she has installed for protection. Once inside, however, it is obvious that the two old friends have a fine symbiosis, supporting one another’s independence, sparring verbally and with spirit at times, but also providing comfortable companionship.

Into this well-balanced relationship comes Christine, Bonnie’s long-lost grand niece. Under the guise of family reconciliation, Christine proceeds to push her way into the household, all the while casting covetous looks at Bonnie’s possessions. Little by little, she gains Bonnie’s trust, as she tries to convince Bonnie that she’s no longer capable of living alone. Christine pressures her great aunt to sell the house and move to an extended-care facility. We see Christine in furtive phone calls to someone else, talking about her plans, but really, we don’t need those glimpses, since her objective is patently obvious from the start. She is even carefully cataloguing the antiques.

Bonnie almost falls for the scheme, but she finally finds her backbone and resists. When Celine has a stroke, it is Bonnie who takes on her care, and finally routs Christine.

The performances by Fletcher and Tyson are, as one might expect, nuanced and delightful. The image of white-haired Fletcher flipping her grand niece the bird and snapping “F*** you!” as Christine flees, is well worth the price of admission.

As stated, the film itself is not perfect. At times, it’s heavy-handed, and at other times it just confuses. I cannot for the life of me figure out the rationale when Fat Rose and Squeaky, all cleaned up and oozing sweet concern, appear to the comatose Celine, when they have all along been messy, rowdy, creations of Bonnie’s mind. Perhaps I missed some connective tissue, there. The message seems to be that every old woman has a Fat Rose & Squeaky in her own mind. Given Celine’s character, her own “mental boarders” would be different from Bonnie’s: less rowdy and pushy for sure - but did the author have to make them quite so smarmy?

But despite some rough edges, this film is fun to see. It’s encouraging to be reminded that old people have the right to be cranky and stubborn, just like the rest of humanity, and that while they may have lapses of memory and odd mental companions, they have not lost the need to be in charge of their own destinies.

The writer has created a Fat Rose & Squeaky web site, created to give older people opportunities to discuss the film and other issues: www.fatroseandsqueaky.ning.com.

JS

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