Ron Rash’s “sense of place” is Southern Appalachia, where he grew up and still lives. The region with its “rugged, brutal landscape of exceptional beauty, promise, and suffering” is a character in its own right in his novels and short stories.
Reviewer Benjamin Judge writes: "So strongly is this sense of place evoked that I would not have blinked if I had been told this was a novel and that the binding character was the Appalachian Mountains themselves."
The characters who populate the hollows and gorges of this rough and remote land often live in despair as they continually confront the darker side of life through mistakes and misfortunes that are often of their own making. But they are tough in their acceptance of fate and have learned the art of survival in this "back of beyond" environment where family ties and traditions run deep. They are resilient.
Winner of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Burning Bright (2010) is Rash’s fourth of five short story collections. The 12 stories span more than 150 years, from the Civil War to the present day.
In her review of Burning Bright, Anne Brooke writes that the collection “simply shines and has the kind of literary, intellectual and emotional power that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Not only that but the writing is strong, subtle, precise and perfectly suited to its sometimes painful subject matter.”
Observer Reviewer William Skidelsky characterizes Ron Rash’s stories as “portraits of rural desperation, of lives blighted by poverty, drugs, and grief.”
The title of the collection’s opening story would be appropriate for almost any story written by Ron Rash-- “Hard Times.” This story is set during the Depression and introduces a cast of characters who struggle to survive while preserving their pride. Survival is a familiar thread that run through the 12 stories included in Burning Bright. Other themes include poverty (“Hard Times,” “Back of Beyond,” and “Dead Confederates”); addiction (“Back of Beyond” and “The Ascent”); loss (“Falling Star” and “Waiting for the End of the World”); relationships (“Burning Bright,” “Hard Times,” and “Falling Star”); family issues (“Back of Beyond,” “The Ascent,” “Falling Star,” and “Into the Gorge”); tradition (“The Corpse Bird,” “Into the Gorge”) and war (“Lincolnites” and “Return”).
If the stories in Burning Bright are often bleak and depressing, they also offer glimmers of mercy and hope through characters who persevere with remarkable strength and fortitude. We have to admire the courage of the mountain woman in “Lincolnites” who does what she must to defend herself and her child from a Confederate soldier who threatens to take her livestock. We are awed by the stealth of the small child in “Hard Times” who finds creative ways to keep herself from starving. We are moved by the respect the soldier in “Return” demonstrates toward the man he has just killed.
No character created by Rush is either all good or all bad, “a demon or a hero,” as Reviewer Benjamin Judge points out. Although it would be easy to dismiss these characters as people from another planet, Rush humanizes them in a way that won’t allow us to cast them aside. “We have to face them for what they are, slight variations of ourselves.”
“Falling Star” is a heartbreaking story of jealousy and desperation. The husband in this story feels so threatened by his wife’s desire to pursue a college education and pass him by intellectually that he plots a drastic revenge which, unfortunately for him, backfires.
In this excerpt the husband contemplates burning his wife’s textbooks:
“The books are on the kitchen table, big thick books. I open up the least one, a book called Astronomy Today. I read some and it makes no sense. Even the words I know don’t seem to lead nowhere. They just as likely could be ants scurrying around the page….
I touch the cigarette lighter in my pocket and think a book is so easy a thing to burn. I think how in five minutes they be nothing but ashes, ashes nobody could read. I get up before I dwell on such a thing too long.” (p. 156)
Although the husband doesn't burn his wife's books, he does something equally brash and impulsive that will have lasting repercussions in his life.
Another outstanding story is “Return,” a quiet and graceful story of a soldier’s return to his home in the snowy mountains of North Carolina after serving during the Korean War. This narrative has no come-out-of-nowhere acts of violence that often startle readers of Rash’s stories, no surprise ending, no dark humor, no encounters with the law, no trespassing, no stealing, no digging up graves, no meth addiction, no arson, and no slashing of tires that readers encounter in the other 11 stories in the collection.
It is the memory of coming home to Appalachia that has kept this veteran’s dreams of returning alive while he serves in the Philippines. Through the nightly sounds of mortar rounds and sniper fire, he puts himself to sleep by fantasizing his walk home—a walk that he knows “as much by memory as sight,” even in the snow.
We learn that the returning soldier killed an enemy soldier during the war and wonders about him, reminiscent of the Vietnam War veteran plagued by guilt in Tim O’Brien’s “The Man I Killed” (The Things They Carried, 1990).
The soldier visualizes what life might have been like in Japan for the soldier he killed:
“He knows there are mountains in Japan, some so high snow never melts on their peaks. The man he killed could have been from those mountains, a farmer like himself, just as unused to the loud humid island nights as he’d been—a man used to nights when all you heard was the wind.” (131-133).
Before leaving the Japanese soldier’s body, the veteran says a prayer and performs a humanitarian act instead of taking the opportunity to plunder. The fact that he is never named suggests he could be any veteran who senses a similarity between the man he has killed and himself.
Ron Rash's Writing Style
A careful craftsman, Ron Rash’s stories are tightly constructed with a minimalist style that wastes not a word. USA Today reviewer Bob Minzesheimer characterizes Rash's prose as “spare, clean and often haunting.”
Because Rash is also a poet, his prose also has an eloquent, lyrical quality that serves to softens the delivery of the often harsh subject matter of his stories.
About Ron Rash
Although he is considered a regional writer, Rash believes, as Eudora Welty did, that "One place understood helps us understand all other places better." The best regional writers, he believes, are also those that are the "most universal," finding a common core that allows readers to experience both the “exotic and familiar.”
Selected Burning Bright Reviews
Burning Bright by Ron Rash – of pain and perfection
Burning Bright by Ron Rash--Review
'Burning Bright' by Ron Rash: he Luminescence of Endurance
Burning Bright: Stories
Literary critics loving new book by WCU’s Ron Rash
On Writing: The Importance of Place by Ron Rash
Ron Rash: Burning Bright
Rural Pride and Poverty and a Hen’s Empty Nest
Short Story Review: Ron Rash’s “The Ascent”