The World Made Straight
Appalachian poet and fiction-writer Ron Rash is emerging as an international literary superstar. Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s back-cover endorsement of his 2014 short story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay declares, “Like his great predecessors, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and especially Eudora Welty, Ron Rash’s stories are rooted in the American South and from that place and those people, he writes marvelously rich and compelling vignettes of life as he has seen and imagined it.” In her assessment of Burning Bright (2010), an earlier volume of Rash short stories, Irish Times reviewer Eileen Battersby proclaims, “Magnificent is suddenly too small a word.” Discussing his efforts to make his Appalachian characters accessible to readers outside the region, Rash noted in a July 2015 interview, “One thing that has pleased me is that my books are in, I think, eighteen languages now. I just got an e-mail from China, that the books are doing very well there, and the editor there was talking about the number of young Chinese writers who are reading [my work] and influenced by it…. I was in France a few years ago, and a woman said, ‘You’ve told the story of my life’” (interview with the author).
While they wait for their copies of his newest novel, Above the Waterfall, to arrive, readers in France, China, and here in the US who are only now boarding the Rash bandwagon will find plenty to ponder in his earlier work. Just this year, the University of South Carolina Press issued a twentieth-anniversary edition of his MFA short-fiction project, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth (1994), featuring stories both heart-breaking and hilarious. Most of his subsequent work is far darker, chronicling instances of environmental, social, and personal devastation in the western North Carolina landscape where Rash grew up. His writing has gathered literary power over time, but his nearly ten-year-old, relatively underappreciated novel The World Made Straight (2006) demands our attention now. As hair-raising as any thriller on the best-seller lists, The World Made Straight transcends the pulp fiction genre to challenge readers to reconsider our perceptions of last summer’s Confederate flag debate, as well as to reflect on the ways our cultural and personal histories can control us—or challenge us to overcome them.
As The World Made Straight opens on an August afternoon in 1978, Madison County, North Carolina native Travis Shelton has traded trout-fishing for pot-poaching. A skinny seventeen-year-old, Travis is already a knowledgeable outdoorsman, but he has no real vision for his future. He finds satisfaction in the physical labor of tobacco-farming, but he has watched his father’s financial prospects dwindle as demand for his crop declines. Moreover, Travis’s attempts to resist internalizing his father’s contempt for him drive him to self-destructive acts of defiance: dropping out of school, driving too fast, drinking too much. As he fishes above a waterfall in the book’s first scene, Travis relishes his own foolhardiness and remembers a characteristic assessment: “Nothing but a bother from the day he was born. Puny and sickly as a baby and nothing but trouble ever since. That’s what his father had said to his junior high principal” (7). In light of this internal monologue, Travis’s subsequent decision to steal and sell five marijuana plants he spies along the creek is hardly surprising.
The novel’s tension rises when Travis returns not just once but even a second time to steal from Carlton and Hubert Toomey, whose reputations for violence would intimidate anyone with a grain of sense. Travis tells himself, however, that the father and son are too lazy to catch him:
Travis’s daddy claimed the Toomeys poached bears on national forest land. They cut off the paws and gutted out the gallbladders because folks in China paid good money to make potions from them. The Toomeys left the meat to rot, too sorry even to cut a few hams off the bears’ flanks. Anybody that trifling wouldn’t bother walking the hundred yards between farmhouse and creek to watch for trespassers. (8)
Travis is right about the Toomeys’ indolence, but he woefully underestimates the creativity with which they will keep watch over their cash crop.
On his second visit to the marijuana field, Travis battles a bit with his nerves: “When he came to where the plants were, he got on all fours and crawled up the bank, raising his head like a soldier in a trench. A Confederate flag brightened his tee-shirt, and he wished he’d had the good sense to wear something less visible. Might as well have a damn bull’s-eye on his chest” (25). Fortunately, the Toomeys don’t take aim at him on this occasion, and he successfully transports his load of plunder to a small-time drug dealer, Leonard Shuler.
The Confederate flag tee-shirt is not, however, lost on Leonard. After completing the drug transaction, he talks with Travis over beers. When Travis observes that Leonard’s house trailer is full of books, Leonard tells him, “Keeps me from being ignorant.” Travis retorts that some of his teachers have been too stupid to change their own cars’ oil, to which Leonard replies, “Stupidity and ignorance aren’t the same thing. You can’t cure someone of stupidity. Somebody like yourself that’s merely ignorant there might be hope for.”
Travis demands, “What reason you got to say I’m ignorant?”
“That tee-shirt you’re wearing, for one thing. If you’d worn it up here in the 1860s it could have gotten you killed, and by your own blood kin.” (28)
Thus begins Travis’s months-long history tutorial, which is also Rash’s readers’ 289-page tutorial on Appalachia’s complex Civil War legacy.
Travis, as Leonard deduces in their first encounter, is the descendent of Union-sympathizers killed by their Confederate neighbors in the 1863 massacre at Shelton Laurel. His wearing a Confederate tee-shirt truly does signal his ignorance of local and familial history. When Leonard asks him whether his family never talked about the massacre, Travis thinks hard and responds, “Sometimes my daddy and uncle talked about kin that got killed in Shelton Laurel during the war, but I always figured the yankees had done it” (29). Travis immediately rejects the possibility of his family’s having been Yankees, and Leonard acknowledges that they were not, “at least not in the geographical sense.” But, he adds, “They had a side. Nobody had the luxury of staying out of it up here. Most places they’d fight a battle and move on, but once war came it didn’t leave Madison County” (29). The region, he explains, came to be known as Bloody Madison.
Thirty years later and far beyond Madison County, Travis has companions in confusion, as James W. Loewen contends in “Why Do People Believe Myths About the Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks and Monuments Are Wrong” (Washington Post, July 1, 2015). Loewen points out, for example, that even though only 35,000 Kentuckians fought for the South while 90,000 fought for the North, Confederate monuments there now outnumber Union ones seventy-two to two. Similarly, Frederick County, Maryland, has a Confederate memorial, and locals commemorate the Southern cause around Memorial Day even though Confederate officer Jubal Early demanded a $200,000 ransom from their forebears in 1864 (about $3 million in 2015 dollars) in order not to burn the town. Loewen asserts, “The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield…. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.” Clearly, Rash shares Loewen’s concern.
In The World Made Straight, then, Rash helps clear up significant confusion regarding one Civil War event about which most Americans, even in the immediate vicinity, are misinformed if not totally unaware. Leonard Shuler, in contrast, may live in a rusty trailer; sell pot, pills, and beer to teenagers; and even be rumored to have killed someone, but he knows history. While trying in vain to forget his painful personal past, Leonard reads widely about painful political conflict: Hitler’s and Stalin’s atrocities (94); American Indian rivalries (181); and, of course, the US Civil War. The insights of Simone Weil have formed his thinking; he quotes her to Travis about halfway through the book: “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. Those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone… a soul which has entered the province of force will not escape this except by a miracle” (162). Later, when he accompanies Travis and Travis’s girlfriend Lori to the Shelton Laurel massacre site, Leonard remembers Weil’s claim that “[t]he true object of war is the warrior’s soul” (206). A drunkard and a contributor to the delinquency of minors, Leonard nevertheless proves to be a philosopher well-equipped to guide Travis from ignorance to a surprising form of wisdom.
In doing so, Leonard reclaims his own vocation. Coming from the same impoverished community as Travis, Leonard had studied his way out of Madison County into a scholarship at and a degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Pressed by his wife Kera to move to an area where they could both find teaching jobs, she in English and he in history, Leonard had reluctantly re-located with her and their young daughter Emily to the Chicago area. The marriage, however, fell apart, with Kera repeatedly accusing Leonard of “living in the passive voice, letting others make choices so if things went wrong he didn’t have to bear the blame” (54). Leonard developed a drinking problem and then plea-bargained when a vengeful student planted marijuana in his car and accused him of dealing. Leonard’s acquiescence to pressure from school and legal authorities confirmed Kera’s contemptuous assessment of him, and he subsequently lost his marriage, access to his daughter, and his job. Eventually, he made his way back to Madison County, justifying peddling dope and booze to self-destructive young people as “merely speeding up the process of natural selection” (74). Getting to know Travis, however, stirs Leonard’s desire to teach and ultimately helps him emerge from his own darkness.
That darkness runs deep. Demoralized by Kera’s verbal abuse and rejection, her subsequent departure with their child and a new husband to Australia, and his own unemployment, Leonard also has what he considers a legacy of “dark spells” from his mother. “She’d stayed in bed for days at a time,” he recalls. She “...left the bedroom only to whip Leonard and his sister for playing too loudly” (158). Moreover, he is haunted by accounts of the massacre at Shelton Laurel. Like Travis, he is a descendent of those involved in that conflict. Unlike Travis, however, he knows his family history all too well, and his side was complicit in the killing. Supplementing and correcting Leonard’s textbooks’ accounts of the Civil War is the sixteen-volume journal of his great-great grandfather, Joshua Candler, a physician conscripted into the Confederate regiment that slaughtered Travis’s relatives.
Because his own last name is Shuler, Leonard is able to conceal his Candler connection from Travis for most of the book. In educating Travis about Shelton Laurel, he appears simply to be exposing the young man to both sides of the story for objectivity’s sake. In response to Travis’s incredulity about the Confederates’ having killed his relative David Shelton, who was only twelve years old at the time, Leonard quotes a regiment member’s having observed that “a nit makes a louse”—“kill the offspring before they get big enough to kill you” (75). When Travis questions further how the Confederates could have killed their own neighbors, Leonard reminds him of World War II atrocities and notes that Confederate Colonel Lawrence Allen had convinced his men that Union-sympathizers were “bushwhackers,” criminals rather than legitimate military opponents who, if captured, would deserve execution rather than imprisonment as prisoners of war (94). (Although Rash does not elaborate, using language that casts others as vermin or criminals is common in situations of rising conflict among neighbors, as Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews illustrates.) Later, when Travis responds angrily to an old library book’s account of the regiment’s having beaten an eighty-five-year-old woman, Leonard tells him, “I know. I’ve read this book. It’s got one big flaw as history, though. It fails to show the other side.”
“What other side?” Travis asked.
“How the Sixty-fourth [Confederate regiment] had been shot at for days. How miserable the weather was, how rough the terrain. They figured those women could tell where the snipers were and save them a lot of time and work. Save some of their own lives as well.”
“It was still wrong,” Travis said. “I wouldn’t have shot a twelve-year-old boy.”
“Saying that here and now is different than if you’d been there… Some soldiers didn’t want to shoot at first, but [Lieutenant] Keith told them if they didn’t they’d be killed as well. What if you had a wife and a child? It’s 1863 and they’re about starved to death as it is. The man giving the orders knows where your family lives. It’s no longer just about you. You’ve already seen an eighty-five-year-old woman being beaten, so you know he’d as likely do the same to your wife or daughter.” (161)
Having read and re-read his great-great-grandfather’s journal entries leading up to the massacre, Leonard understands the complexity of the situation, complexity that reverberates in recent news accounts of Irish, Balkan, Rwandan, Liberian, and Syrian atrocities.
Rash enriches readers’ experience by interspersing pages from Joshua Candler’s journal with the main narrative, enabling us to watch tension build in Madison County as war approaches and takes hold. Candler comments briefly on each day’s medical cases, beginning with farming injuries, fevers, and childbirth complications in the 1850s; branching out to a broken nose, bloody lips, and even gunshot wounds resulting from arguments over secession in 1861; and continuing with the horrific disemboweling of a Sixty-fourth regimental sentry by his Unionist neighbors who were hiding in the hills to avoid conscription. By providing this detail, Candler helps account for the Confederates’ subsequent brutality during the massacre, but he also reveals that he would have preferred not to serve as the Confederates’ doctor. When he treats Lawrence Allen for hoarseness on May 13, 1861, he editorializes far more than usual, “Would it be that not just Allen but Zeb Vance and his Raleigh firebrands would get aphonia to quite [sic] their braying about states [sic] rights” (102). Reporting on the county’s secession vote, he notes, “Final delegate vote: 28 for Secessionists, 144 Unionists. This folly may yet be prevented” (103). As Leonard studies these entries, he agonizes over his great-great-grandfather’s having witnessed and perhaps even participated in the massacre of his own former patients, particularly young David Shelton, with whom he had sat up all night when the boy had typhoid in 1859. Leonard muses, “[W]hat role for a man who’d been against secession yet had not fled to Tennessee with his first cousin to join the Union forces? A man who had not volunteered for the Confederate army but had been conscripted, evidently letting his allegiance be decided by which side first chose to place its claim on him” (206). How guilty was his ancestor, Leonard seems to be wondering, of living in the passive voice?
Leonard himself is certainly guilty, as is Travis. Each lets whim—his own or others’—carry him, and each makes excuses for his poor choices. While Rash does not justify these choices, the backstories he gives both men make their behavior understandable. Each has experienced beatings by a parent, and each has suffered ongoing verbal abuse by a family member. As Carolyn Yoder notes in The Little Book of Trauma Healing, domestic abuse survivors often both “act in,” experiencing high levels of depression and abusing substances, and “act out,” engaging in high-risk and aggressive behaviors, committing criminal acts, and perpetuating domestic abuse themselves. Moreover, they typically battle apathy and low productivity, communication problems, either-or thinking, and inability to trust (33). Through expert exposition and painstaking plot development, Rash helps us understand why passivity plagues both Leonard and Travis.
Fascinatingly, Rash also suggests that Leonard’s and Travis’s individual family histories alone do not account for their plights. They are also survivors of what Yoder calls historical trauma. Drawing from the work of Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Yoder defines historical trauma as “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations emanating from massive group trauma” (13). The effects of historical trauma can last for generations, she explains, “even when the next generation is not told the trauma story, or knows it only in broad outline. A ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounds events for which grieving and mourning have never taken place” (14). Leonard describes such a conspiracy when Travis asks him why people don’t talk about the massacre: “The men who shot them were also from this county. Even after the war some folks got killed because of what happened that morning. People believed it was better not to talk about it” (93). Trauma studies scholars might look to the 1863 Shelton Laurel massacre as an unacknowledged but significant factor in the Candler and Shelton families’ legacies of poverty, depression, and domestic abuse.
David Anderson Hooker and Amy Potter Czajkowski have extended Yoder’s work on trauma in their Transforming Historical Harms manual, which offers an additional helpful lens for considering Rash’s novel. While Hooker and Czajkowski’s treatment of US historical trauma focuses primarily on the Coming to the Table project, in which descendants of slave-owning and enslaved people collaborate to address slavery’s legacy and aftermath, their insights are also useful for reflecting on the Civil War’s effects on Appalachia. Hooker and Czajkowski explain that while trauma certainly affects individuals, communities and even entire societies often develop shared struggles after traumagenic events. “Victors” and their descendants typically cultivate an “us-vs.-them” group identity alongside a “good-vs.-evil” narrative in which they de-humanize the enemy, come to regard violence as redemptive, and savor social pride in their triumph. (Loewen suggests that although they lost the war, those today who claim the Confederate legacy have adopted the victors’ attitudes.) Survivors on the “losing” side often experience increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-abuse, and addiction; battle existential doubt and survivor guilt; and succumb to learned helplessness, hopelessness, and fatalism (23). Travis and Leonard, their parents, and many of their impoverished neighbors fall into that second group. These characteristics are, in fact, common even in other parts of Appalachia, where assaults by outsiders who plundered the region for its resources have been even more destructive than the Civil War was.
What hope, then, exists for historically traumatized people, in fiction or in real life? Strikingly, Rash takes Leonard and Travis through a restorative process remarkably similar to the Transforming Historical Harms (THH) framework Hooker and Czajkowski set forth in their manual. Those seeking healing, they recommend, should face history, make connections, heal wounds, and take action in order to “build a more truthful, just and connected society” (29). Facing history, they assert, must go beyond reviewing the “victors’” accounts that typically appear in history textbooks to uncover both the extent of the harms the victors committed and the traumagenic circumstances they faced (34).
In carefully combing through and reflecting on competing historical accounts of the Shelton Laurel massacre, Leonard and Travis face history in just this way. They make connections, most obviously with each other, but also with their forebears as they return to and reflect on the massacre site, even putting on young David Shelton’s eyeglasses to observe what he might have seen before his death. Much like the descendants of slaveholders and enslaved people in the Coming to the Table project, Leonard and Travis operate as surrogates for their forebears. The imaginative exercises they undertake during their site visits function as healing rituals, which Hooker and Czajkowski say should address a trauma’s “physiological, spiritual, emotional, and cognitive dimensions” (38). Finally, both Leonard and Travis take action. Although they do not tackle destructive, trauma-induced social and economic systems in the manner that Hooker and Czajkowski urge, each man breaks out of his pattern of passivity to liberate Dena, another character close to them who has been held captive, literally by the Toomeys and figuratively by her own self-abuse.
What enables them to do so? Love. In When Blood and Bones Cry Out (2010), John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach celebrate love’s mysterious capacity to heal historical trauma. Acknowledging that analyzing love “enters the slippery slope of the intangibles that lie outside the scientific endeavor,” they point to five recent studies in medicine, neurology, psychology, and sociology that examine love’s effects. In a sixth that they deem particularly noteworthy, A General Theory of Love (2001), three psychologists offer an account of “the impact and importance of love as a transformative component of healing and its impact on relationships” (231). While Lederach and Lederach’s ensuing argument may not convince all readers, Rash’s artistic treatment of the topic is irresistibly compelling. Leonard and Travis have formed a family of sorts with Dena, and in spite of each character’s struggle to trust, they love each other. Travis comes to relate to Leonard as a son to his father, and Leonard’s love for the young man motivates him to stop dealing drugs and drinking. Leonard’s love for his daughter Emily empowers him further, motivating him to take up honest work and save money to visit her in Australia. Even more importantly, the memory of his last interaction with Emily empowers Leonard to stand up to Carlton Toomey, and his hope of reunion with her enables him to meet his final, desperate challenge with dignity. Travis’s relationship with his girlfriend Lori also helps him develop a hopeful vision for his life, a vision he had been denied for his first seventeen years.
Some readers might charge that calling The World Made Straight a hopeful novel strains credulity. The final chapters’ cataclysmic encounters between the Toomeys and Leonard, Travis, and Dena are bloody and violent, and the ending is ambiguous, at best. For many Christian readers, however, the last paragraph will shine. Shortly before the narrative explodes in physical violence, Lori gives Travis a silver cross and chain, “to protect you when I’m not around” (233). Distraught over an agonizing encounter with his father, Travis takes his anger out on her, dismissing the gift, picking a quarrel with her, and pitching the necklace out his car window when she flees in tears. At the novel’s end, however, after a series of actions that demonstrate his courage and generosity, he goes to her. She may reject him, of course, but, then again, she may not. Rash concludes:
His life was beyond [the] fields, but Travis knew he would never forget this smell or the cool moist feel of broken ground. He inhaled deeply, held it in like a man savoring the taste of a last cigarette. The road curved briefly, then straightened as he began the long ascent north to Antioch. (289)
Antioch, North Carolina, where Lori lives in squalor with her millworker-mother, unmarried pregnant sister, and little brother, may be the poorest hamlet in Madison County, but readers who know their church history will recognize ancient Antioch as one of the primary launching points for the Gospel.
The World Made Straight will never show up in a Christian bookstore, and, in interviews, Rash is far readier to speak about wonder in general terms than about conventional religious faith. Lederach and Lederach identify experiences of wonder as powerful aids in trauma healing, and Leonard and Travis’s vast and shared capacity for wonder in nature is a key element in the novel (Lederach and Lederach, 133). Rash did, however, grow up Southern Baptist and expresses deep appreciation for having been “saturated in the Bible” (interview, July 2, 2015). That he offers a hint of Christian hope in a book about the effects of historical trauma breathes life into Alan D. Falconer’s 1998 consideration of Irish political conflict in “The Reconciling Power of Forgiveness.” Falconer writes, “The sense of impotence in the face of the past is matched by an equally powerful sense of impotence to fashion the future…. Power to break the cycle, the impotence, is proclaimed to be the work of Jesus Christ, above all in making new and in freeing humankind from the burden of the past and giving hope for the future” (177, 178). Drawing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s treatment of responsibility in Ethics, Falconer asserts that a robust understanding and application of the Gospel is profoundly relevant for historical trauma survivors.
Rash, too, looks to Bonhoeffer for inspiration. When asked in 2006 about his decision to write about Shelton Laurel, he replied:
I think it’s a meditation on violence. I’ve always been horrified and fascinated over people, who live in close proximity to each other, turning on one another. During Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia. In Bosnia. Rwanda. It’s unsettling to see people fall back into a tribal mentality. To me it’s horrifying and one of the most depressing things humans can do to each other. The hope is that there will always be people who fight against it. People like Bonhoeffer in Germany. (Zacharias 2006)
More recently and closer to home, Rash might look also to the members of Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, who chose to absorb through forgiveness the hatred of Dylann Roof, the murderer who cloaked himself in the Confederate flag for selfies. As James W. Loewen acknowledges in his lament about misinformation surrounding the Civil War, “De-Confederatizing the United States won’t end white supremacy, but it will be a momentous step in the right direction.” One novel can’t undo the massacre at Shelton Laurel or its effects, either, but Ron Rash’s exploration of its complexity in The World Made Straight offers hope not just to people in Appalachia but to historical trauma survivors all over the world.
Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.
“Elieen Battersby’s Books of the Year.” The Irish Times. December 17, 2011.
Falconer, Alan D. “The Reconciling Power of Forgiveness.” In Reconciling Memories. Alan D. Falconer and Joseph Liechty, eds. Dublin, Ireland: Columba Press, 1998.
Hooker, David Anderson and Amy Potter Czajkowski. Transforming Historical Harms. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, n.d.
Lederach, John Paul and Angela Jill Lederach. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2010.
Loewen, James W. “Why Do People Believe Myths About the Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks and Monuments Are Wrong.” Washington Post. July 1, 2015.
Rash, Ron. Interview with the author. Clemson, South Carolina. July 2, 2015.
_____. Something Rich and Strange. New York: Ecco, 2014.
_____. The World Made Straight. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.
Yoder, Carolyn. The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security Is Threatened. Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2005.
Zacharias, Karen Spears. “Ron Rash Speaks with Karen Spears Zacharias.” Authors Round the South. September 21, 2006.