I haven't seen Winter's Bone yet, but while reading this, I kept wondering how audiences were going to react to Jennifer Lawrence, America's sweetheart, as a ruthless bitch. Set in a logging camp in 1929 North Carolina, Serena is a hard woman with no time for sentimentality, and there are definitely things about her to admire. She holds her own among the men,and is often the smartest person in the room. She knows more about logging than most if not all of the men, and she and her husband are equals in their marriage, both passionate and ambitious. However, Serena won't let anything stop her, and as a result, the further the novel progresses the more people fall victim as they oppose or stand in the way of Serena and George Pemberton's ambitions.
I think one thing that especially emphasizes their villainy, especially today when we face so many environmental issues, is their complete disregard for nature, happily cutting down all the trees, and going on various hunting trips. At one point, they kill twelve deer and just leave them in a clearing (you'd think someone in the logging camp would have eaten them), and one of George's dreams is to kill the last mountain lion in the area that may or may not exist. Even though I wanted them to fail, I couldn't help but view Serena as an unstoppable force, and if only she'd been working for a cause I supported, her ability to read people and figure out exactly what she wants and how to get it, would have been a great asset. Instead, she has made herself the top dog in a dog eat dog world, and woe to anyone that even threatens to get in her way.
The novel kicks off with Pemberton's return to North Carolina, new bride in tow, after a trip to Boston to settle his father's estate after his death. Their welcome party includes a heavily pregnant teenager, Rachel, and her father, a drunk who wants to make Pemberton pay for his treatment of Rachel. From the start, Serena shows herself at home in this rough and tumble world which feels more like the Wild West than the late 1920's. Rather than being upset about her husband's past or shrieking at the thought of murder, she commands her husband to take a stand, and tells the unfortunate girl not to expect anything from them, ever. Especially in the beginning, Serena is a conflicting character. While she is cold and lacking in empathy, it was refreshing to see a woman in this world take control. It wasn't until her actions went from unsympathetic to truly evil that I really started disliking her.
Though the novel is called Serena, the reader never completely gets to know Serena. She is only portrayed through the eyes of others, and sometimes she is a woman with hidden depths in vulnerability, other times an unbreakable spirit, an unfathomable mystery or a caricature of evil. There are chapters and parts that are from the perspective of various loggers, Pemberton himself, and several from Rachel. In fact while Serena may be the force driving everything happening in the novel, in ways it felt like Rachel was the main character since she is the one that the reader spends the most time with. While I found parts of the novel incredibly distasteful because of the actions of the Pembertons, it left a deep impression on me. The loggers bear witness to what goes on around them, and through their eyes we see the destruction of nature, and how their presence has affected the valley in so many ways. They see the ways that the balance of nature has been tampered with but being in the midst of the Great Depression have no choice but to be grateful for any type of job, even if they hate the results of what they are doing, and watch their friends and coworkers die around them, sometimes because of logging accidents and sometimes because of the Pembertons.
I really enjoyed this dark, poetic novel, though it may not be for everyone (some people complained of animal abuse and some of the hunting scenes were a bit hard to stomach because of the sheer waste). In fact, the author was said he was inspired by theater and the idea of an Elizabethan play. The story basically occurs in five acts, and the loggers are his version of a Greek chorus. I never even would have heard of this novel if it hadn't been for the film, so I'm looking forward to see how it turns out (I can definitely see Jennifer Lawrence working well with this role, it will just be a surprise after her other work; I'm more skeptical about Bradley Cooper's casting), and want to check out more of Rash's work.