SERENA by Ron Rash
A Review by Mary Ickes
To offset admiration for the Captains of Industry in 1878, pundits utilized a Middle Ages’ term for barons extorting enormous fees to travel the Rhine River: robber barons. Under the guise of turning the United States into an industrial world power, American industrialists exploited political, natural, and human resources to fill their own coffers. In robber baron legend and lore Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt overshadow thousands of equally mercenary and greedy robber barons, including North Carolina’s lumber barons. Serena, set in a lumber camp more authentic than fictitious, scrutinizes the lumber industry.
George Pemberton, along with his partners Buchanan and Wilke, established the Boston Lumber Company in Haywood County, North Carolina. By 1929, crews have clear cut over 7,000 of their 34,000 acres of prime forests. The novel opens with Pemberton returning from Boston with Serena, his bride. Along with Abe Harmon and Rachel, his daughter (pregnant with Pemberton’s baby), Buchanan, Wilkie, and many of their employees meet the train in Waynesville.
Partners and employees alike are smitten with Serena’s beauty and poise until she and George brutally dispatch the Harmons.
Before their wedding, Serena revealed little about her background except that her parents (Colorado lumber barons) and her siblings died in the flu epidemic. Besotted by Serena’s elegance and astonished by her knowledge of the lumber industry, Pemberton marries her, defying the advice of Boston society matrons. Pemberton considers Serena’s subsequent announcement that her timbering goal is Brazil, with “Virgin forests of mahogany and no law but nature’s law a silly whim.” As a result, he is no more prepared than his partners and employees for Serena’s ride, figuratively and literally, through their midst “. . . astride the great horse, erect and square-shouldered, not looking anywhere but straight ahead . . . She and that gelding would go right over whoever got in their way and not give the least notice they’d trampled someone into the dirt.”
The morning after her arrival, Pemberton introduces Serena to his hundred employees, announcing, “Her orders are to be followed the same as mine.” Employees still doubting, even after the Harmon episode, change their minds when she viciously rebukes Bilded, the only man who scorned her introduction.
Thereafter, employee perspective is voiced through Snipes and his crew: Stewart, an ineffective foreman relieved when ordered to trade places with Snipes; Dunlap, the youngest at 19; McIntyre, a religious fanatic who refers to Serena as the whore of Babylon because she wears pants; and Ross, who has lost all hope for a better life. Individually, they exemplify the many facets of a lumber camp’s employees. Collectively they personify fear, innate to all timber workers. Through their observations, often witty and mordant, readers follow Serena’s campaign for company control—beginning, unfortunately, with the workers.
Though demanding bosses, Pemberton, Buchanan, and Wilke respected the skills of individual men as company assets to be protected with safety measures. Serena reduces the men to a natural resource infinitely less valuable than her timber, and easily replaced by the hordes of men driven to their offices by the Great Depression.
The partners never ordered crews into exceptionally dangerous sites, especially not for “. . . a few yellow poplars . . . sycamore and birch and hemlock . . . “ bordering a narrow creek where “. . . theyíd be working in close proximity to one another.” Risking his job, Snipes argues for his crewís safety, but Pemberton remains adamant. After two close calls, Snipes permits a break, because he “. . . figured fifteen minutes would cost the Pemberton Lumber Company less than the time it’d take to haul an injured man back to camp.” Despite his cautions, a widow-maker—a sharp limb falling from high above like a javelin—impales one of his men. As death and injury escalate, Ross quips,
“I expect before long theyíll be fittin’ us for coffins ahead of time. You’ll be planted in the ground before you’ve got a chance to stiffen up good.”
The camp doctor snidely reports to Serena that, “. . . the men are getting killed at a rather prodigious rate these last few weeks,” but she and Pemberton blame heavy rains and steeper inclines. She cannot relent, because John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1926, set in motion political and financial forces for purchasing land for the Smoky Mountain National Forest, including the Boston Lumber Company. Intending to sell only after the last tree falls, Serena keeps them at bay by stalling meetings and arguing about the price. Threatened with seizure by eminent domain, Serena intends to finish timbering the land and head for Brazil while Rockefeller’s forces are mired in red tape.
From the lofty heights of her noble steed and her arrogance, Serena identifies another block on her path to Brazil—her husband. Awed by her business acumen and beguiled by her promises of glorious success —”The world lies all before us, Pemberton”—he carries out her ruthless commands. Betraying his partners and watching his men needlessly die eventually sends Pemberton to the brink of madness, which he tries to drown in alcohol. Adding to his guilt is a longing to help Rachel for his son’s sake and to protect them from Serena’s vengeance. After a near disaster that clarifies his priorities, Pemberton chooses to follow Serena on her ruthless ride. Relieved to allay his doubts and fears, Pemberton forgets that Serena must also choose.
The novel ends with Snipes and his crew cutting the last tree on Noland Mountain before moving to the next timbering site: “When a thirty-foot hickory succumbed to Ross and Henryson’s cross-cut saw, the valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some large animal.” The metaphor also describes the human suffering and carnage in Serena’s wake as she rides to the new site. Snipes and his crew have been there before her to visit the new camp’s first grave.
As fiction, I couldn’t read Serena fast enough to discover the limits of her ruthlessness. Your most outlandish guesses, Reading Friend, won’t even be close. As literary satire, Mr. Rash is to be commended for placing North Carolina’s lumber barons right where they belong in the legend and lore of American robber barons.
Mary Ickes lives in Hendersonville with her husband Roy where they are proudly owned by felines Tilly, Russell, Fezziwig, and Buddy. A voracious reader, she would like to hear from other women whose brains have been turned by reading (Louisa May Alcott). Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org