Ron Rash 

Best known as a chronicler of the residents, culture, and history of rural Appalachia, Ron Rash is critically acclaimed for his skillful, perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives of people in the region. In his poetry, short stories, and novels, he pays homage to their vital connection to the past and their struggles to preserve their cultural roots despite sweeping economic and social change, displacement, marginalization, and environmental degradation. Rash’s writings focus on family conflicts, the challenges encountered by working-class people, the pressures of the past upon the present, and the splendor and mysteries of nature. A best-selling author with an international readership, Rash has been praised for his distinctive literary voice, consistent reexamination of regional stereotypes, and rendition of Appalachia’s buried history.

Born September 25, 1953, in Chester, SC, to parents who came to the from the North Carolina mountains to work at a cotton mill, Rash is a descendent of eighteenth-century Scottish and Welsh settlers who immigrated to the southern Appalachian Mountains. His father, James Rash, left high school to work, but later earned a college diploma and became a professor of art at Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, NC, where Rash grew up. After graduating from Gardner-Webb College with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1976, Rash took a year off, worked a series of blue-collar jobs, then resumed his studies and received a master’s degree from Clemson University in 1979. He began publishing his stories in magazines in the early 1980s.

After teaching at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, SC, Rash was appointed the John and Dorothy Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. A prolific author, he has been the recipient of numerous honors, including an Academy of American Poets Prize in 1986, a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Award in 1996, the O. Henry Award in 2005, 2010, and 2019, and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2010. Chemistry and Other Stories (2007) and Serena (2008) were finalists for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and in 2017 Rash was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2023, Rash’s novel The Caretaker was selected one the Best Books of the Year by the New York Times.

Rash has written prose, poetry, and nonfiction, but he first received critical attention as a poet. Narrative and accessible, the forty chronologically arranged poems in his first collection, Eureka Mill (1998), center on his grandparents’ generation and their out-migration from the North Carolina mountains to Chester to work in the cotton mill. Using a variety of poetic forms and meters, including the sonnet and the villanelle, Rash describes the process of being uprooted and displaced as part of the regional shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy and celebrates their endurance and humanity without sentimentalizing. The poetry collection Among the Believers (2000) examines various modes of belief, such as religious faith and folk superstitions. Haunting and bleak, many of the poems are written in a seven-syllable Old Welsh meter that relies on internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance. They range in subject matter, including people’s connection with the past in “Decoration Day,” death in “The Skeleton in the Dogwood,” guilt in “The Confession,” and the hope of resurrection in the final poem, “Good Friday, 1995, Driving Westward.”

Rash offers Lake Jocassee (an artificial reservoir created when Duke Power displaced residents by flooding 8,000 acres for a hydroelectric plant) as a metaphor for cultural erasure in Raising the Dead (2002). A sense of loss is palpable in the opening poem, “Last Service,” and in subsequent pieces like “Carolina Parakeet,” and “Speckled Trout,” a tribute to Rash’s cousin, who died young in an auto accident. The poems in Waking (2011) juxtapose minute observations of the natural world with waking moments of consciousness in Rash’s childhood. Poems: New and Selected (2016) features a sequence on the poet’s Welsh forebears, who settled, made a living, and created a community in Appalachia.

Rash’s short stories revisit subjects and themes familiar from his poetry. Ten linked stories appear in The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina (1994). The fictional setting in the title is home to the collection’s three narrators, who represent distinct ways of coping with the harsh realities of life in the region with a blend of humor and pathos. Casualties (2000) features imaginative as well as realistic stories about Appalachian residents, including the somber “Chemistry” and the purifying “Last Rite.” Chemistry and Other Stories includes thirteen stories (eight of them reprinted from Casualties) that emphasize the pain, guilt, and hopelessness that often lurk behind people’s public facades. In “Deep Gap,” a devastated father risks everything to rescue his son from drug dependency. The Korean War nurse in “Cold Harbor” continues to be haunted by images of death.

The troubles of the Appalachian region, such as crystal meth addiction in “Back of Beyond,” are prominent in the stories of Burning Bright (2010), though there are also stories of resilience, courage, and humor. Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013) shows characters resisting but also succumbing to the forces of history and time affecting the region. In “Twenty-Six Days,” the parents of a daughter serving in Afghanistan cope with the intrusion of the outside world.  In “Three a.m. and the Stars Were Out,” two Korean War veterans who realize the larger significance of life when they save a calf from a near stillborn death. Something Rich and Strange: New and Selected Stories (2014) gathers thirty-four of Rash’s best stories including “Hard Times,” “The Trusty,” “Dead Confederates,” and “Love and Pain in the New South,” among others. Arranged by Rash himself, these stories cohere into an exhilarating tapestry of Rash’s virtuoso performance as a writer of short fiction. In the Valley and Other Stories (2020) features nine stories ranging from the internecine Civil War tale “Neighbors” to contemporary ones such as “When All the Stars Burn Down” and “Ransom” that chronicle the moral decay, social corruption, and personal desperation characteristic of the dystopic 21st century. The collection also includes Rash’s mesmerizing first novella, “In the Valley,” that highlights the return of Serena Pemberton (titular character of the 2008 novel Serena) to the western North Carolina mountains to complete her mission of environmental destruction for corporate profit.

In his novels, Rash often expands on the themes invoked in his other writings. One Foot in Eden (2002), set in Jocassee Valley, SC, from the 1950s to the 1970s, presents a crime story as well as an account of human tragedy told by five different first-person narrators. As details of longing, jealousy, false paternity, and a local murder surface two decades later, the novel also serves as a lyrical meditation on the psychological effects of displacement by flooding and a disrupted ecosystem in a wider context of moral corruption. Saints at the River (2004) takes place in a community torn apart: when a twelve-year-old girl drowns in the Tamassee River, grieving parents who want to recover her body are opposed by environmentalists. In The World Made Straight (2006) Rash parallels the violence and damage caused by 1970s drug culture in Appalachia with that of the Shelton Laurel Massacre, which occurred in the same area in 1863. The novel is simultaneously the story of Travis Shelton’s coming of age and Leonard Schuler’s guilt and redemption, as well as an eloquent evocation of Appalachia’s beautiful but haunted landscape.

Set in the Smoky Mountains of Appalachia during the Great Depression (1929-39), Serena is the saga of a northern couple, George and Serena Pemberton, whose lumber empire is depleting local forests with devastating clear-cutting methods. It depicts the machinations of the murderously ruthless Serena as she deals with business and personal obstacles, causing multiple tragedies. Rash positions the local hired hands as a kind of Greek chorus in the novel that comments on the Pembertons’ reaping of quick profit at the expense of the Appalachian land and people. The Cove (2012), set at the end of World War I in a bleak Appalachian valley, focuses on Laurel Shelton, her brother Hank, and Walter, a seemingly mute tramp who appears in the nearby woods and transforms their lives during a time of anti-German hysteria. In Above the Waterfall (2014), set in contemporary western North Carolina around Cullowee, Sheriff Les Clarey contends both with a local meth case and a mysterious fish kill three weeks before his retirement. His life is complicated by his failed marriage, as well as his interest in Becky Shytle, a school shooting survivor who has become a park ranger to immerse herself in the natural world in hopes of healing.

The Risen (2016) opens in the summer of 1968 and tracks the lives of two brothers, Eugene and Bill Matney, both mesmerized by a sensual, unconventional young woman, Ligeia, who is staying with her relatives in Sylva, NC. After a brief affair with Eugene, she disappears; decades later, a random incident forces Eugene, now the town reprobate, and Bill, now a respected surgeon, to confront once more their relationship to each other and to the fate of Ligeia. In The Caretaker (2023), Rash weaves the story of near-tragic lovers, Jacob Hampton and Naomi Clarke, with the caretaker of a mountain-top cemetery, Blackburn Gant. Set in Blowing Rock, NC, during the Korean War, the novel teems with mysteries, lies and deceits—all presumably in the name of love. A powerful novel of determination, duty, and devotion, The Caretaker celebrates the human bonds of affection that can occasionally beat back the forces of darkness.

Rash has been an award-winning writer since his first collection of stories but beginning in the early 2000s his work gained an increasingly large domestic and international audience of readers and scholars. Monographs such as John Lang’s Understanding Ron Rash (2014) and French scholar Frederique Spill’s The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing (2019), along with Randall Wilhelm’s omnibus The Ron Rash Reader (2014) and critical essay collection Summoning the Dead (2018) attest to scholars’ continuous fascination with the important work he has created. Rash’s global reading audience has grown as well, with his novels and stories having been translated into eighteen languages. Rash’s poetry has been translated into French, first with Poems: New and Selected in 2018, and most recently with his collected poems Reveiller de Mortes (Raising the Dead) in 2023.

Read an excerpt from Above-the-Waterfall by Ron Rash