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These Tales Of Transformation Are Both 'Rich And Strange'

Ron Rash is a Southern-born novelist and short story writer with a reputation on the rise; you might know him as the author of the novel Serena (a PEN/Faulkner fiction prize nominee a few years back), which is about to become a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. I have just finished reading his newly issued collection: 34 pieces of short fiction, previously published from 1998 to 2014, all of them under the title Something Rich and Strange, and I have to say that "rich" and "strange" are two words that aptly apply to this book.

I have two other words to continue with: Simply beautiful. In fact, in places, some of the stories are so searing, it's as if someone has taken a stick from a blazing fire and pressed it into your hand.

The title story (with its allusions to The Tempest and transformation) sets a high standard by finding beauty in ordinary human error. In this case, the mistake is made by a young tourist from Nebraska on a hiking trip along the border of Georgia and South Carolina.

She wants to boast to her friends back home that she had one foot in each state, so she kicks off her sandals and steps into a fast-moving river — and finds that the water is "so much colder than she imagined, and quickly deeper, up to her kneecaps, the current surging under the smooth surface. ... She takes another step and the bottom is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream."

I got swept away myself. Rash is a dedicated realist, with a common-sense temperament and carefully measured prose; most of his stories start off light and turn quite dark. He celebrates ordinary life with all of its everyday steps from one moment to another — and its disturbing revelations, sometimes elevating, sometimes devastating.

There's the mountain man in "Hard Times" who, during a near-famine, sets a trap for what he believes is an egg-stealing snake, with astonishing — and pathetic — results. In "Into the Gorge," an old man walks deep into the woods to a supposedly haunted location, to harvest a ginseng patch planted by his late father, and finds that he has made a life-changing decision.

In "Chemistry," a boy's father dies and leaves a haunting question behind. "Burning Bright" gives us a widow who's caught up in a passionate affair with a man who may have other kinds of fire on his mind. And the pregnant woman in "Lincolnites" (one of the admirable handful of Civil War-period stories in this collection), who, set upon by a ravaging Confederate neighbor while her husband is away at war, takes her life — and his — into her own hands.

I don't want to throw too many titles at you or just give you a laundry list. I'll say this, though: Reading this collection is like taking a long walk into that haunted gorge where the ginseng grows wild. Trust me: In here, you'll find many things, even the dark matters, quite wonderful.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.