The Cove starts with a mystery. A man has been hired by the government to drive out and notify residents that the area they live in was going to be intentionally flooded, and also to evict them. He goes into a place called “the cove”, happy that there is no one living there anymore.
The buildings are abandoned. When he uses the well to get some water he finds a human skull. Who was it? What happened? Ron Rash does, eventually, answer those questions for his readers. My first impulse, after finishing the story, was to go back and re-read the beginning portion where the skull was found.
The majority of the book happens years before the incident with the skull in the well. It takes place during World War I in a little town called Mars Hill that is located in the Appalachians of North Carolina. The cove itself sits not too far outside of town. Many of the locals believe that the cove itself is haunted. The place doesn’t get much sunlight, so attempts at growing crops often result in failure.
Laurel Shelton grew up in the cove, as did her brother, Hank. Her father bought the land because it was a low price, and promptly moved his wife and children there. He was unaware of the superstition that had been connected to the place. His children, however, were affected by it. They were shunned simply because of where they lived, and ended up with very few friends.
Without giving away too much of the story, some tragedies occur, which convince many of the people who live in town that Laurel is a witch. She isn’t, and what happened wasn’t anything she could have done or prevented. However, Mars Hill is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone, and gossip spreads fast. It is enough of an excuse for people to shun her.
When the story starts, Laurel is doing laundry in the creek that flows through part of the cove. There is an area of granite near the creek that is the only place in the cove that gets sunlight. It makes it easier for the clothing to dry, but Laurel also likes to sit there and feel the warm sun on her face. She often sits and listens to the sound of the wild parakeets that are becoming more and more rare in the area. They eat people’s crops, and so, people shoot at them.
After years of living there alone, her brother, Hank, has returned home from the war. He lost part of his arm. The same people who shunned him (and who continue to shun Laurel) welcome him back with open arms, and consider him to be a hero. They still won’t accept his sister, though.
As Laurel sits in the sun, she hears what she takes to be bird song. Listening to it more critically, she realizes that it doesn’t match the few, remaining, parakeets who live in the cove. What could that be? She follows the sound and finds a man who is sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, eyes closed. It is obvious that he is in bad shape, and has been sitting in that spot for at least a couple of nights. Laurel has never heard such beautiful music as the notes that come from the silver flute the man plays.
Again, without giving away too much, Laurel convinces Hank to help this stranger. The man is mute, and cannot tell them his name or his history. After years of utter loneliness, Laurel finds companionship. All around her, there are small signs that things are not going to end “happily ever after”, but she doesn’t recognize them until after things have gone too far. For the first time in her life, she is happy.
In town, there is a man named Chauncey Feith. He isn’t well liked, and it is easy to see why. His job is to recruit young men into the military, while he stays home, in a nice, safe, office. Some of these men have died, and others returned home maimed. Many people blame him for what happened to their loved ones.
Sadly, he is the type of man who believes that he is way more important than he actually is, and who also is utterly paranoid that “the war” will arrive right there, in Mars Hill. Today, he would probably be a host on one of those radio talk shows who spews misinformation in an effort to scare people for no good reason.
Chauncey puts a lot of effort into trying to convince people that they should be watching out for invading forces, who might secretly be in town, hiding, right now. Eventually, as the story unfolds, and certain things happen, he manages to convince a small group that he is right. This, of course, leads to violence.
A strong sense of loneliness permeates this story. From the dwindling parakeets to the main characters, there is a feeling of longing for that which one does not have, but desperately needs. This is the kind of book that makes you want (at least some of) the main characters to have a happy life, all the while knowing how little a chance there is of that happening. The story makes you ache for what the characters were so close to having, but did not get to fully enjoy. I could not put this book down, and am looking forward to rereading it.