As my husband and sister will tell you, I am naturally drawn to “woman on the cover, looking off into the distance” books. They aren’t wrong, but I’m making a conscious effort to steer away from this unless there is a real reason I am pulled into the novel. I am just fascinated by women in power, or women who want power. Hence, my obsession with books about queens. This one is a recent purchase despite my self-imposed ‘ban’ on woman-dress books. Hey, there is a train on this cover too!
I’d seen the trailer of this movie (which bombed) and had a “I’d read that book!” moment. So when I saw it for cheap, it joined my collection. Now that I’ve read it – I am so pleased with this read! This is definitely the woman in power story I love to read, but not in the typical way.
This story starts in 1929, shortly after the stock market crash. Despite the economic downturn, Mr. Pemberton and his new wife Serena are determined to build a lumber empire in the North Carolina mountains, even with the new push to build a National Park. The Pembertons are rather ruthless in their pursuit of this as they have little regard for their workers or the damage they are causing to the land. As they make business acquisitions and finish their projects, they set their sights on even bigger forests – and won’t let anyone stand in their way.
Even though the book is named for her, Serena is not exactly the protagonist. She never narrates herself, and there is very much a level of mystique around her. Her husband describes her with lust and wonder, while the men in the work camp revere and fear her. The reader isn’t sure what to think about her, other than she is force to be reckoned with. I was fascinated by her.
The descriptions Ron Rash writes are great. You really get a sense of the immensity of it all, and how it provides comfort for one character and danger for another. Even though there was quite a bit of harsh treatment of animals through husbandry, hunting or even a circus, I didn’t think too much of it, as the times were different. Thank goodness we have a little more concern for animals well-being than to bring a komodo dragon around just to fight other animals. Yup, that happened.
I don’t want to give too much away about this book. I thought I was along for a story about timber barons as they build their empire, but I was surprised with much more than that. There were themes of religion (both Christian and more mythical), betrayal and all-consuming love. Reading it initially, I was there for the story, but I got so much more out of it.
Certain characters seemed to portray these themes in ways I didn’t catch the first time through, and I think a reread would be beneficial. I am honestly already looking forward to a reread. The ending took me totally by surprise, and I wonder if I would understand it more a second time around. So with that said, I will definitely be keeping this book. I’ve seen some other reviews comparing it to MacBeth, so once I read that I think it would be interesting to compare as well.
I recommend this book for anyone who likes some adventure and wilderness stories, that doesn’t shy away from the realities of living far from civilization, especially during the Great Depression. I also think anyone, like me, who loves women who create their own destinies will like this. It’s a different take on it, since you see her from the perspective of the other characters and you don’t get a look inside her head. Also, if you enjoy shady, conniving business owners – this is a fun treat!