Thursday, July 26, 2007

The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash

Having just finished the 7th book in the Harry Potter series (review coming shortly), its fitting that I am now writing about The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash. This adult novel tells the story of a young 17 year old, grappling with evil in his own world, and in the recent past as well. Two of the main differences to the Harry Potter story, though, are that this narrative is realistic fiction, and the past that this young hero--Travis Shelton--confronts is the American Civil War.

I loved this novel. The writing is strong, poetic, and suspenseful. The evil that Travis Shelton faces is represented by a tough old coot named Carlton Toomey. Carlton is a stand in for the devil--he can transform himself effortlessly to solve any kind of rhetorical problem or situation--and he dishes out cruelty without remorse to those who challenge him. Toomey is after Travis because Travis has had the temerity to steal some marijuana plants and other "objects" that Toomey values from his hidden hideway up in the Appalachian mountains.

Like most young heros, Travis needs help and assistance. Typical of an adult novel, most of the help Travis gets is in the form of an adult, a drug dealer named Leonard Shuler, a onetime schoolteacher who lost his job and custody of his daughter when he was framed by a vindictive student. Leonard provides Travis with shelter and guidance, and helps him to understand the full complexity of the situation that he is in. In particular, Leonard shows Travis that his battle with Toomey mirrors conflicts that took place in his community during the civil war, information that helps Travis to think more deeply about the moral course of action he wishes to take in his own time.

I think many high school aged teens would enjoy this novel, especially if they have an interest in history and can connect to the rural landscape and ethos described so well by Rash. A lot of the learning and lessons in this book have to do with Leonard Shuler; many of the cultural references will be more familiar to adults in their 40's than to contemporary teens (music, drugs, etc...). However, if readers can negotiate these two times and cultures (as well as the Civil War era evoked by the text), then rewards will come. This is a startling beautiful and frank novel that provides enjoyment on many levels, and useful insight into the relationships among the different ages in which both teens and adults live.

Here is a goofy short commentary on the civil war. Be forewarned--it does have some potentially objectionable language (if you read The World Made Straight, you'll recognize Travis's best friend, Shank, in this video).

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