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Ron Rash

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(2006 - Prose)

Prologue to the novel Saints at the River

She follows the river trail downstream, leaving behind her parents and younger brother who still eat their picnic lunch. She is twelve years old and it is her school's Easter break. Her father has taken time off from his job and they have followed the Appalachian Mountains south, stopping first in Gatlinburg, then the Smokies, and finally this river. She finds a place above a falls where the water looks shallow and slow. The river is a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia, and she wants to wade into the middle and place one foot in South Carolina and one in Georgia so she can tell her friends back in Minnesota she has been in two states at the same time.

She kicks off her sandals and enters, the water so much colder than she imagined, and quickly deeper, up to her kneecaps, surging under the smooth surface. She shivers. Fifty yards downstream a granite cliff rises two hundred feet into the air to cast this section of river into shadow. She glances back to where her parents and brother sit on the blanket. It is warmer there, the sun full upon them. She thinks about going back but is almost halfway now. She takes a step and the water rises higher on her knees. Four more steps, she tells herself. Just four more and I'll turn back. She takes another step and the bottom she tries to set her foot on is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream and she does not panic because she is a good swimmer and has passed all of her Red Cross courses. The water shallows and her face breaks the surface and she breathes deep. She tries to turn her body so she won't hit her head on a rock and as she thinks this for the first time she's afraid and she's suddenly back underwater and hears the rush of water against her ears. She tries to hold her breath but her knee smashes against a boulder and she gasps in pain and water pours into her mouth. Then for a few moments the water pools and slows. She rises coughing up water, gasping air, her feet dragging the bottom like an anchor trying to snag waterlogged wood or rock jut and as the current quickens again she sees her family running along the shore and she knows they are shouting her name though she cannot hear them and as the current turns her she hears the falls and knows there is nothing that will keep her from it and the current quickens and quickens and another rock smashes against her knee but she hardly feels it as she snatches another breath before the river pulls her under and she feels the river fall and she falls with it as water whitens around her and she falls deep into darkness and as she rises her head scrapes against a rock ceiling and all is black and silent and she tells herself don't breathe but the need rises inside her beginning in the upper stomach then up through the chest and throat and as that need reaches her mouth her mouth and nose open at the same time and the lungs explode in pain and then the pain is gone along with the dark as bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, and she remembers her sixth grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room that morning the teacher held a prism out the window so it might fill with color, and she has a final, beautiful thought--that she is now inside that prism and knows something even the teacher does not know, that the prism's colors are voices, voices that swirl around her head like a crown, and at that moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.

Ron Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700s, and it is this region that is the primary focus of his writing. Rash grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and graduated from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University. He holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. In 1994 he was awarded an NEA Poetry Fellowship and won the Sherwood Anderson Prize in 1996. In 2001 he won the Novella Festival Novel Award and in 2002 was awarded ForewordMagazine's Gold Medal in Literary Fiction for his novel One Foot in Eden. The novel was named Appalachian Book of the Year. In 2005, his novel, Saints at the River (Henry Holt), was named Fiction Book of the Year by both the Southern Book Critics Circle and the Southeastern Booksellers Association. In March of 2005, he was given the James Still Award by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. In 2005, he also won an O. Henry award for his story "Speckled Trout." His poetry and fiction have appeared in over one hundred journals, magazines, and anthologies. His other books include: The Night The New Jesus Fell to Earth (short stories, Bench Press), Casualties (short stories, Bench Press), Eureka Mill (poetry, Hub City Writers Project), and Among the Believers (poetry, Iris Press), and Raising the Dead (poetry, Iris Press).  His third novel, The World Made Straight, will be published by Henry Holt in April, 2006.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

What makes my NEA grant especially meaningful is that my work has been chosen by a jury of my fellow writers, several of whom are novelists I've read with great admiration. The grant will allow me to spend my next two summers working on my fiction instead of teaching, and at this stage in my writing career free time is the most precious gift of all.


Ron Rash

Author and NEA Literature Fellow


Audio Tabs

No one tells stories embedded in Southern Appalachia with more grit or more beauty.