Serena a thrilling mix of history and fiction for locals in the know
Little bits of local lore riddle the pages of Ron Rash’s Serena.
“As a fiction writer I know I am going to get things wrong, but you do the best you can to get those details as correct as possible,” Rash said. “If we can get enough things right, I think it allows the reader to stay in the dream. Very specific, authentic details allow the reader to believe everything else that is being made up.”
Rash never claimed Serena to be a historical account. It’s set in a real time and a real place: Haywood County in the logging boom of the 1920s and the epic battle over the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But Rash mixes and mashes, borrowing place names from here and there and swirling them around, or placing historical figures in imagined scenes.
The liberties are few, however. Serena is strikingly accurate and rife with cultural nuances and historical references. Despite being lost on the majority of readers who catapulted Serena to the New York Times bestseller list — how many of them picked up on the reference to the famed breed of bear dogs, the Plott Hound — the locals can appreciate them.
We’ve cataloged some of the prevailing historical references in Serena.
With a nod and a wink
A supporting character in the novel named R.L. Frizzell paid tribute to George Frizzell, the institutional rock star of Western Carolina University’s special library collections — the hands-down expert on all-things historical about the region.
The Frizzell in Serena was a professional photographer of the day, and if the fictional Frizzell had in fact been real, the photos he took would have later been curated in the collections of the real Frizzell.
Rash said it was his way of honoring a “very valuable source.”
The real Frizzell said he was indeed honored.
“I didn’t know about it in advance, much like a surprise party,” Frizzell said. “That was a real treat.”
There for the taking
Rash’s books are laden with real last names from the region he’s writing about. Serena, set in Haywood County, has Campbells, Harmons, Nolands, Buchanans, Galloways and so on.
“I think it is one of those little things that make the book truer. It makes the book more real to the reader,” Rash said.
Rash uses real place names as well: Clingmans Dome, Deep Creek, Rough Fork, Balsam Mountain, Mount Sterling, Noland Mountain, Cove Creek. With so many rich place names to pick from, why bother making any up?
A seat at the table
In the aristocratic quarters of Serena’s timber barons, a massive dining table ringed by captain’s chairs was made from a single polished slab of wood — a symbol of the opulence derived from the destruction of the timeless forests. That table was inspired by a real one Rash saw at Lake Logan Retreat Center, in the heart of the former Sunburst logging territory.
“There is a table up there that is very similar to the one in Serena, made from a single piece of yellow poplar. I was just stunned by it,” Rash said.
The real table has more than 230 growth rings on it, a sapling in the late 1600s that was eventually cut in the early 1900s.
Real life political drama
The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was born out of the logging devastation, but it was a race against time. Timber barons were intent on denuding every stand to stumps and slash before they were stopped, while the park proponents battled to save the final vestiges of the old-growth forest from destruction.
The tension mounted as the forces collided, with the local people passively watching the tug-of-war over their landscape play out around them.
Rash captured this pivotal moment in the nation’s history alongside his invented characters. Rash slips in the names of real logging companies from the day, how much they got for their acreage when selling out to the park, and even the saving grace of the Rockefellers’ philanthropy to make the land purchase for the park possible.
The political maneuvering over the creation of the park is woven gingerly into the plot line — from the campaign to win the hearts and minds of local people to the bullying and bribing by timber barons trying to stop the park.
“There was this big political hoopla with all these money people trying to fight this,” said Anne Melton, a historian in Waynesville who’s published a book on the logging town history of Haywood County. “They were trying to get the locals to fight this thing by telling them they would be out of a job.”
Life on the line
Trains played a pivotal role in the logging boom, with spur lines, inclines and trestles snaking for miles to penetrate remote stands of hard-to-reach timber.
The signs of the logging era are still hidden in the woods. You can walk the old logging roads and rails. You can find signs of landings where logs were staged, clearings where camps were built, even the scars of old skid trails. Artifacts — twisted metal rails, coils of cable, even spent boilers — likewise litter the woods.
While writing Serena, Rash stumbled on a man named Ron Sullivan who was on a mission to map every forgotten railroad spur constructed by loggers in Haywood County.
“He occasionally came in to Waynesville and we would meet,” said Sullivan, who was in the midst of his own research at the same time Rash was writing Serena.
Through Sullivan’s boots-on-the-ground sleuthing of old railroad spurs, he became a self-educated expert on what it took to mount a massive timber operation.
“You got to build a mill, you got to lay all the tracks, you have to have skidders and log cars and engines. You had some in the shop at any given time because there were a lot of derailments. You got a ton of folks out in the woods you got to pay,” Sullivan said. “You would very carefully design where am I going to cut, where you are going to put the railroad, what equipment do I have, what do I need to buy or lease.”
A trip to the Biltmore
A scene in Serena plays out in the halls of the Biltmore Estate at a dinner party hosted by Biltmore heiress Cornelia Cecil. The timber barons George and Serena Pemberton spar with the editor of the Asheville Citizen, Charles Webb, a proponent of the park.
Rash’s descriptions of the Biltmore Estate even include specific portraits and prints on the walls of different rooms. Aside from researching the type of parties the Cecils held, Rash treated himself to a day at the Biltmore to soak up the ambience and let his mind wander.
“I spent a day at the Biltmore House just kind of taking it in, taking notes and also getting a feel for the place,” Rash said. He didn’t announce himself when he went, but after loitering about the great hall for an hour with a notebook in his hand, they surely suspected he was more than an astute tourist.
“I paid my money, so they couldn’t run me out,” Rash said.
Real people, fake scenes
The cast of characters in Serena included several appearances from real life historical figures, like Charles Webb, the editor of the Asheville Citizen who opined tirelessly in favor of the park.
One scene depicts the director of the National Park Service, Horace Albright, traveling to the region to meet with George and Serena Pemberton in hopes of negotiating a buy-out of their land holdings for the park.
The most notable figure is Horace Kephart, a famous writer and adopted son of the Smokies who championed the park on the national stage. In the book, Kephart was equated to a modern-day Thoreau and the Smokies’ version of John Muir.
But Rash even worked in Kephart’s shortcomings, which only a few Kephart scholars would have picked up on.
“To me he is such a fascinating character. I did make up the scenes but I hope I caught something of him,” Rash said.
George Frizzell, the head of special library collections at WCU, said Serena wouldn’t have been complete without Kephart.
“You need a character who personifies the movement for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Kephart does that perfectly,” Frizzell said.
Encounters between Kephart and Serena are loaded with verbal barbs as they debate the morals of logging and the national park “nonsense.”
“There were people who had a lot to lose if Kephart got his way. Those people were very real and that’s what Serena represents,” said Jason Brady, a librarian with WCU’s special collections.
By the way, Kephart historians are well aware that the story surrounding the deadly car crash that killed Kephart is full of holes and incongruities. Rash was wondering if anyone picked up on or shared his theory of Kephart’s death. Rash surmises Kephart was dispatched by Serena, who had a knack for staging deadly accidents, like so many of her other foes.
An imaginary map
Anyone who reads Serena and knows Haywood County has a hunch which logging town Rash used for the setting. None are still left, of course, although the marks they left on the landscape will take centuries to heal, if ever.
Some say it’s Sunburst, which is now part of the Shining Rock Wilderness. Some say it must be Crestmont, the logging town set in the Big Creek area that became part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Still others put their bets on Quinlantown, now ensconced by the preserved Waynesville watershed.
But of all the real place names Rash drags into his stories, there’s three you won’t hear in Serena: Sunburst, Crestmont or Quinlantown.
He borrows elements from all of them, yet set the book in none of them. Even though the Pemberton’s empire in Serena becomes part of the park — which would most closely align it with Crestmont in the Big Creek area — some of the geographic references don’t add up. But you can’t take a jaunt from Big Creek to Bryson City, which the characters in the book did when paying the fabled Horace Kephart a visit.
“I shifted the geography around a little bit sometimes,” Rash said.