Novel Ideas - The Missourian: Feature Stories

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Posted: Saturday, May 19, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:13 pm, Mon May 21, 2012.

“The Cove,” the newest book by Ron Rash, recalls a fractious time in our nation’s history when prejudice against Germans and German/Americans ran rampant. A fan of Rash’s previous book “Serena,” I awaited another from an author who’s become a personal favorite.

Set in North Carolina toward the end of World War I, this beautifully descriptive novel features two outcasts thrown together because of the war, a German prisoner on the run, and a woman ostracized by society because of an unsightly birthmark. Believed to be a witch, Laurel is victimized when she goes to Mars Hill with her brother, Hank. The siblings live outside of town in “the cove,” where townspeople believe “ghosts and fetches wandered.”

Laurel finds peace in the wilderness near the cabin she shares with Hank. When she’s walking in the woods one day she hears a strange sound and sees a man playing a flute. Laurel doesn’t approach him, choosing instead to watch Walter in secret for several days.

Laurel’s hand is forced when Walter is stung repeatedly by a swarm of bees. He becomes delirious and Laurel takes him to the cabin to recover. All she knows about Walter is his name, and that he can’t speak, information she discovers from a note in his pocket.

The two develop a relationship of mutual trust, and Hank accepts the silent stranger as well, neither he nor his sister realizing they’ve befriended a German. Hank grows to respect Walter and appreciates his help with work around the cabin, chores that are difficult because Hank has lost a hand in the war.

In Mars Hill, hatred grows as the townspeople lose loved ones overseas. Chauncey Feith is the resident bad guy, an Army recruiter bent on humiliating anyone with German leanings, even blackballing a respected professor. Chauncey becomes more power hungry, commandeering a bunch of the town’s hoodlums bent on misguided justice.

Tension in “The Cove” builds slowly, as does Laurel and Walter’s love affair, and as the book progresses there’s a sense of impending doom — something is going to go terribly wrong. When it does it isn’t what’s expected in this thought-provoking novel with a timeless theme.

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Toni Morrison can add another literary pearl to her strand of marvelous books. “Home” is a short novel, easily absorbed in an afternoon, yet it’s a book that’s sure to stay with you.

Like Morrison’s other novels, it tackles a difficult subject. “Home” focuses on the shame an African-American veteran of the Korean War must face before he can make peace with himself.

Twenty-four-year-old Frank Money is in a “crazy ward,” where he’s been taken after a bender. It’s the 1950s, and Frank has just returned from Korea, visions of the horrors he witnessed fresh in his mind. His only release comes from a bottle and a woman who tires of rescuing him.

Though Frank is besieged by nightmares and hallucinations, he remains clear-headed and loyal to his 20-year-old sister, Cee. The two have always been close. Growing up the siblings had no one else to count on. Their parents had to work in the fields, and left them in the care of their grandparents, care that left much to be desired in regard to their grandmother. She poured water in their cereal instead of milk and ignored their physical and emotional needs.

Now Cee is in trouble — so says a letter Frank receives, which eludes to Cee’s failing health. It’s all the news Frank needs to spring the “crazy ward” and head to Georgia, where he rescues his sister from the hands of a man mistreating her in the cruelest of ways.

Frank takes Cee back to their hometown of Lotus, Ga., where a community of women care for her. Frank heals there as well as his childhood questions are answered, and he gets honest with himself regarding a secret he has harbored. All the pieces fit at the end of this marvelous little treasure.

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Those who doubt that addiction is a disease will be convinced otherwise when reading “Ninety Days, A Memoir of Recovery” by Bill Clegg. Why anyone would choose to live in the hell brought about by alcohol and drug abuse is beyond comprehension. This painful account of Clegg’s struggle to remain drug-free is a sobering account of the horrors of cocaine and substances that provide feel-good highs, following by crushing lows, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and total lack of self-respect.

Staying sober for 90 days is a benchmark in recovery, one Clegg struggles to achieve after returning from a monthlong stint in rehab that sets him back more than $40,000. His drug of choice is cocaine, chased with alcohol, and it cost him his career and his boyfriend.

Returning to New York City, Clegg has a mountain of bills and no job. But he does have a sponsor he met in the hospital who encourages him to go to lots of support group meetings to share his story and learn from other addicts attempting to stay clean. Initially, one believes Clegg will be successful, but recovery is a slippery slope. Soon Clegg is calling his dealer’s cellphone, waiting with restless anticipation for the drugs he craves.

Repeatedly, Clegg relapses, along with many of the acquaintances he meets in the rooms he returns to, time after time. Two steps forward and one step back, he reports to the groups, one day clean, then one week, maybe two, only to backslide yet again. Mounting paranoia comes with each relapse, as well as constant thoughts of throwing himself off the balcony of his high-rise apartment.

“Ninety Days,” is gut-wrenching, and Clegg, the adult son of an alcoholic, has no easy answers, but he does offer this input for others: “If you are struggling with drugs and alcohol, go to the rooms where alcoholics and addicts go to get and stay sober. These rooms and people in them are your best chance. Listen to them and be honest with them.”

One can only hope Clegg will succeed in following his own advice.

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