I never cry while watching movies. To me, the beauty of fiction lies in observing another world without having to actually take part in it. But I have to tell you how refreshing it is, every once in awhile, to really feel something. To be transported. To feel the pain of those you never have and never will meet and come out on the other side somehow different.
Something Rich and Strange
November 4, 2014
Author Ron Rash captures the beauty of intense, gritty reality by using small poignant scenes to get at underlying truths. He transports you to places that you know exist but spend your days ignoring. Yet once you start reading, you don’t want to stop; you don’t want to put your blinders back on. In fact, you can’t.
The 434 pages of Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange” are sliced into 34 separate short stories. The stories take place in different times and have different perspectives, some first person, some third. They all take place in the same Appalachian region. Rash provides many small scenes and snippets of lives that when read together give the reader an understanding of a regional culture.
Series of short stories often run the risk of feeling disjointed when placed side by side, especially stories such as these, with such drastic plot, character and time shifts. Rash is successful in his compilation because the stories, though technically different, explore the same themes from a variety of angles. His characters are driven by forces such as pride, hope, desperation and a need for deliverance that any reader, regardless of their walk of life, can relate to. These themes are addressed in all 34 of his stories, providing the reader with a medley of related yet distinct emotional responses.
And yet each story doesn’t try to cover all four of these themes. Instead, stories will alternate which themes are the focal point and which are merely undercurrents. Some stories vaguely reference these universal struggles, and some succinctly spell them out.
Instead of trying to skim the top of all 34 stories, I, like Rash, want to use small telling moments to convey the essence of the text.
In the first story, you are thrown into a world of extreme poverty. You find yourself wanting to discover who stole eggs from the aging couple Jacob and Edna. You cry when Edna accuses the starving neighbor’s dog and the neighbor takes his dog right then and there and cuts his throat “just in case.” You feel your own stomach churn as Jacob tries to give food to the starving family, but the father, Hartley, refuses because, “I ain’t got no money to buy it.” His willingness to suffer rather than lose what little pride remains brings tears to my eyes. Tears I don’t waste on make-believe. Now I’m crying about imagined dead dogs and eggs goddamnit. Still I read on.
Now I’m reading about a woman who lives her life in solitude after a traumatic accident. She takes up a job running the night shift at the radio and slowly starts to feel an intangible connection with the audience she talks to every night. The station’s red beacon is described as a pulsing heart, “giving bearing to all those in the dark adrift and alone.” I start to believe that maybe there is a common thread that ties us together, even those wandering alone. That maybe those in the deepest darkest holes of isolation which Rash portrays so well are not lost — not hopeless.
Yet just when you almost feel elated, almost feel like you’ve conquered the darkness and can close the book, Rash reels you back in with renewed vengeance. He delves into the lives of those caught in a culture of meth addiction. You feel hatred as they harm those around them, then sympathy as they harm themselves. I experience a place where “food and warmth and clothing were no longer important,” where “the only essentials were the red-and-white packs a sudafed in the passenger’s seat.” Rash rips away the hope he works so hard to instill, only to build it back up again.
Through waves of pride, hope and desperation you find yourself and the characters searching for deliverance. A boy seeks refuge from addict parents in a snowy wood and climbs into a crashed airplane. As he sits among the dead and dreams for a world in the sky, he almost believes that the plane will take off. The boy “knew that they had taken off and risen so high that they were enveloped inside a cloud, but still he looked down, waiting for the clouds to clear.” And then you feel an indescribable yet powerful need for some, any, subliminal force — for the existence of a beyond.
While reading Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” you never really know if your hope is warranted, you will question the likelihood of a salvation, but at the end of each story you will always flip to the next one, hoping to find out. Take a risk — don’t be comfortable. Maybe you’ll find something worth crying for. I certainly did.