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Book Review: Rural Appalachian family’s dreams turn dark in new Ron Rash novel, `The Caretaker’

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This cover image released by Doubleday shows "The Caretaker" by Ron Rash. (Doubleday via AP)

Ron Rash has made the fog-shrouded ridges of Appalachia his fictional home in novels and short stories over a highly acclaimed career dating back decades. With “The Caretaker,” his first novel in seven years, he returns to this familiar mountain terrain and its remote hill culture.

Set in the early 1950s in Blowing Rock, a hamlet in North Carolina’s mountainous west, the novel is a compelling drama of young lovers beset by parental grief and scheming. Often unforgiving elements — the sneer of class bias, community stigma and intolerance — are at work to destroy the youthful lovers.

Jacob Hampton, 17, is the son of well-to-do parents obsessed with seeing him enjoy a financially rich future with a suitable young woman they’ve already selected for him. Naomi Clarke, a 16-year-old hotel maid, is not that woman — but Jacob is passionately in love with her and will not be deterred.

When the young couple elope, Jacob and Naomi are basically kicked off the prosperous Hampton homestead — even though the teenaged bride becomes pregnant and Jacob is conscripted into the Army.

The novel moves smoothly back and forth in time. It opens a world away from Blowing Rock on the shore of a frozen river at the border with North Korea. Drafted and sent into the war zone, Jacob is trying to survive and return to Naomi, who is nearing time for the birth of their child.

The caretaker of the book’s title is Blackburn Gant. He was a young man whose face was hideously disfigured when he was a boy — and is now a target of ridicule in Blowing Rock. As a teenager, Gant was picked to tend the local cemetery. As Jacob’s close friend, he is Jacob’s choice to watch after the pregnant Naomi when Jacob is shipped off to fight.

Caretaking, as Blackburn had been taught, “was a duty for the living and the dead.”

But taking close care of Naomi is not the same as watching over crumbling gravesites. Jacob’s young bride has “a special kind of prettiness — eyes periwinkle blue, hair shiny black as fresh-broke coal.”

Jacob’s parents, however, do not see her attractions. They have wholly different — even diabolical — plans for her.

To this reader, the parents’ plot at first seemed implausible, a divergence from the vivid realism so fundamental to Rash’s narrative force. But the implausibility of the plan hatched by the distraught parents works, in fact, as a realistic response by the well-heeled Hamptons who are used to getting their way in Blowing Rock.

With pulsing drama from the outset, “The Caretaker” can be hard to put down from one chapter to the next. Rash’s touch depicting the early 1950s in Appalachia also makes turning pages a pleasure.

“The Caretaker,” published as Rash turns 70, is crafted with the closely observed descriptions of Appalachian life that have marked his career. With his long resume of novels and stories — covering the Civil War era to the Great Depression and on to the modern scourge of drugs in mountain ravines and hollows — Rash has conjured a kind of rough-hewn Americana with his prose.

He may be regionally focused in his fiction, but his works tap deep veins of human nature and national strife.

Kendal Weaver, The Associated Press