No Wait Wednesday: The Caretaker by Ron Rash

Hello and welcome to the first No Wait Wednesday post of 2024, where we take a look at a book that's on the New Release shelf at one of our local Libraries that might deserve a bit of extra attention. Nobody likes to wait in line for something good to read, so if the hold list for the latest bestseller might seem a bit daunting, come on over and check out a great book that's right here, ready and waiting for you.

Professor, poet, and novelist Ron Rash might be in the conversation as one of the best authors that many folks have never heard of. Critically-acclaimed, a regular on year-end best of lists, and a PEN/Falkner Award finalist among many other accolades, Rash's "The Caretaker is his first novel in nearly ten years and needs to be on the radar of book groups as well as lovers of lovingly-crafted and atmospheric historical fiction. Coming in at a (relatively) slim 275 pages, this novel of an outsider who swears an oath to take care of his best friend's wife during wartime packs a tragic Shakespearean punch, with rich, evocative themes of loyalty, community, and several star-crossed relationships that test the boundaries of friendship itself.

Set in 1951 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the small North Carolina community of Blowing Rock can't escape the reach of the Korean War, sending the son of one of the community's most prestigious families to the front. The Hamptons own the local sawmill as well as the general store, however scion Jacob was disowned from the family because he fell in love with and married a teenager from Tennessee who he met outside a movie theater very much against his family's wishes. Naomi is a hotel maid, from very much the wrong side of the tracks, and most importantly, is pregnant with Jacob's child. The couple are ostracized from the tight-knit community and have no friends, except for one: Blackburn Gant, Jacob's childhood buddy and live-in caretaker of the local cemetery. Blackburn suffered from a bout with polio as a child that left him partially disfigured and with a limp. As an outsider, he understands what Jacob and Naomi are going though, and when Jacob must travel across the globe to Korea and meet his fate, Blackburn offers to look after his bride, protecting her as best he can from the pressures of town, including local toughs looking to bully them as well as the surprisingly long reach of the Hampton family, who had their own plans for their son and are desperate to reclaim him back to their fold. When tragedy strikes Jacob in Korea, the shockwaves change Blackburn, Naomi, and the Hamptons forever.

Rash writes with a sparseness and with an authenticity that leaps off the page. His dialogue between characters especially shines, however you can feel the roots of his rural North Carolina even in the descriptions of the warm, syrupy-thick twilight when Blackburn is mowing the grass of the cemetery. However, the tone is not nostalgic - Rash has serious points to make about the dark side of a tight-knit community that distrusts outsiders - even if that outsider status is asked for. Readers attracted to literary fiction with a rich atmosphere, a strong sense of place, and with a touch of Southern Gothic vibes - such as Wiley Cash, Rick Bragg, and Daniel Woodrell - will find much to enjoy here. 

Thanks for reading! Make sure to place your holds now, and we'll see you soon.