While the setting is not one to which I would typically be drawn – a Depression-era North Carolina lumber camp – Ron Rash’s characters, boldly drawn and irresistibly ruthless, are what make Serena truly worth reading. It begins when the title character, Serena, arrives in Waynesville, North Carolina with her new husband George Pemberton. As the head of a timber empire in the region, Pemberton is, unlike his wife, already well known around town. Rachel Harmon, a Pemberton employee pregnant with the newly married man’s son, is waiting at the train station for Pemberton with her father. After Mr. Harmon’s fatal confrontation with his daughter’s employer, readers and Pemberton’s coworkers who are present gain their first glimpse of Serena’s nature, fiercely loyal and fearlessly unforgiving.
Serena tells the story of an anachronistically strong willed woman, a female who fully participates in the operations of her husband’s lumber company with the foresight of a champion chess player and the rightfully-earned respect of everyone on her payroll. Alongside her husband, Serena will go to unimaginable lengths to secure the lumber company’s stronghold in North Carolina, fighting preservationists intent on buying their land for a national park, effectively eliminating threats posed by even the most peripheral of employees, and paying off whomsoever they can to ensure the unfettered spread of the Pemberton reign. Initially the title-character seems admirable, an unlikely female hero in a time when women weren’t wont to wear pants much less to run timber operations. But as her efforts to protect the Pemberton company expand, what once seemed to be remarkable confidence and business acumen in Serena prove far more dark, mad, and dangerous.
The title character is easily one of the most willful and fully realized female protagonists in modern fiction, which is why I can’t think of a more perfect title for this novel than her very name. Rash’s portrait of Serena evokes an unforgettable image and her character is equally hard to overlook. Colorado-born, the new Mrs. Pemberton is not one to tailor her behavior in the ways expected of high society East Coast women in her time. She rides her white Arabian through the work sites on a daily basis, monitoring the lumber company’s business as much as her husband does, if not more so. More often than not, a novel which goes by the name of its female lead is a love story, some sort of romance novel, even if not a necessarily trashy one. And while Serena certainly does not belong in that category of fiction, the title is completely appropriate for Nash’s tale of unfettered power, deception, crime, murder, and even a little love because it is Serena who single-handedly carries this book.
That is not to say, however, that Rash’s other characters are any less intriguing. Serena’s husband George is a man who married his beautiful, powerful wife only a few months after being introduced to her. Though Pemberton instills requisite amounts of both respect and fear among his employees, readers quickly recognize his weaknesses, prime among them his son born out of wedlock to Rachel Harmon. The Harmon girl seems at first to be a minor figure in the Pemberton landscape, an annoyance in the back of Pemberton’s mind and a smudge on his otherwise flawless record. But to imagine that Rachel Harmon, a central character in the opening scene of Serena, plays anything less than a pivotal role in this novel by its conclusion would be entirely erroneous.
An aging Pemberton employee, Galloway, is one of the more delightfully devious figures in this story. After Serena saves his life, Galloway pledges to cater to Mrs. Pemberton’s every wish without reserve. He becomes an accomplice to Serena’s many crimes, all committed in an effort to preserve her unquestionable power in the lumber camps. Serena values loyalty above all else, a virtue which Galloway seems to hold in endless reserves, even more so than Serena’s husband.
The gallery of timber company laborers whose dialogue readers occasionally find themselves privy to offers some semblance of morality in the Pemberton world, as well as a bit of comic relief. Workers are offed without reserve, some deaths and disappearances more accidental than others. The various employees to whose conversation readers are occasionally party not only serve narrative purposes, they also set the moral compass for readers, reflect on and digest the Pemberton’s decisions, and add levity to balance the darkness of Rash’s story. Life under the Pemberton empire is dangerous, and fatalities only abound as the owners’ greed steadily outpaces their concern over worker safety. Without the a variety of workers to offer some perspective, Serena would otherwise be a very heavy novel indeed.
The true nature of these smartly devised characters slowly unravels in this great vacation read. A thrilling page turner with substance and intrigue to boot, Serena isn’t packed with constant action, but rather gets by on the strength of its various protagonists. This isn’t your typical serialized crime novel, nor was a frustratingly formulaic and predictable book. Much as I relished reading this one, I’m equally curious to see how it translates to film as Jennifer Lawrence (absolutely perfect casting!) and Bradley Cooper are slated to reunite in order to portray Mrs. and Mr. Pemberton together in the movie version this fall.