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Originally published Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Serena": Portrait of hard-driving timber baroness

In his novel "Serena," North Carolina writer Ron Rash paints an indelible portrait of a woman long on ambition and short on compassion.

Special to The Seattle Times


by Ron Rash

HarperCollins, 384 pp., $24.95

One would be hard-pressed to find a woman less aptly named than Serena. She is a force of nature. In building the timber fortune that she and her husband George Pemberton create, trees are not the only things destroyed. Though the novel "Serena" is beautifully written, at times author Ron Rash's characterization of her crosses over into caricature. He shows us repeatedly that she is absolutely devoid of compassion.

George and Serena are newlyweds in 1929 when they arrive in North Carolina to oversee their "leave-no-tree-standing" operation. George has been there before, long enough to impregnate a servant girl, Rachel, who is ready to deliver when the story begins. Their arrival at the train station is punctuated by Rachel's father's attempt to kill George. Of course, it works the other way around. A foreshadowing of Serena's temperament is shown when she hands the knife that killed Rachel's father to her, saying that she should sell it. "That money will help when the child is born," Serena says coolly. "It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me."

George is an addendum to Serena. She is the alpha dog, shaking hands with men, heaven forbid, giving orders to all and sundry, riding through the woods on her Arabian stallion, a wedding present from George, with a snake-killing eagle on her arm.

There are several whiffs of Lady Macbeth in Rash's portrayal of Serena: She has trouble sleeping, she trusts no one but George, she is utterly ruthless in her dealings with equals and underlings alike, and she is single-minded in her pursuit of what she wants. One of the subtexts of the novel is the development of the National Park System, led by Teddy Roosevelt. Both Pembertons are scofflaws, determined to thwart any environmental efforts, keep their land for themselves, log it bare and then move on to the mahogany forests of Brazil. A group of loggers acts as a Greek chorus, keeping the reader informed about "offstage" action and interpreting the Pembertons in pitch-perfect colloquial diction. They are not fooled by the rich patina of money and privilege these outlanders exude. They see the blackness of their hearts.

Serena and George operate as one until Serena veers off in a horrifying direction. At that point, the wheels come off, and the end of their story, and of this novel, is inevitable.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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