The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.

16 thoughts on “The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood”

    1. I’d recommend The Cove to start with, Josyln only because that’s the one that first grabbed my attention. They’re all set in the same area of the Appalachians. If you liked spare writing set in small town America Rash would suit you well.

        1. My dad was a bird watcher and my partner’s quite keen but I’m fairly useless at it, too impatient. I prefer to identify wild flowers which tend to stay still!

  1. I remember your love of Rash from your review of Above the Waterfall, which was memorable both for the book and your enthusiasm. Rash feels like a writer I should look up, though my library list is getting over-long and my reading pace continues to be intentionally slow. Yet he sounds like the kind of writer who would fit right into my desire for a measured pace and a strong sense of connection to place.

    1. He’s a writer I read for his writing as much as anything else, Belinda. And you’re right about it being rooted in time and place, something he shares with Kent Haruf, another favourite of mine.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Naomi. He’s a fan of Donna Morrissey whose The Fortunate Brother I read last week. Based on that I’d say if you like one you’d like the other.

  2. Thank you for pointing me toward Ron Rash’s novels! I loaded “Saints at the river” on my kindle and LOVED it. I will definitely read more from this author. Rash reminds me a lot of Kent Haruf and Larry Watson. These two authors I can’t recommend highly enough.

    1. It’s a pleasure, Claudia. Delighted if I’ve made a convert! Spot on with your Haruf comparison; they share a plain yet sometimes lyrical writing style and a very sure sense of place. Thanks for reminding me of Larry Watson. I’ve only read White Crosses. Which would you recommend I read next?

      1. Watson’s “Montana 1948” is a real gem. I can hardly understand why he isn’t read more widely. Hope you find the time to read it, it is well worth your time. Cheers!

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