“Read this book, you’ll love it. It’s set in Appalachia.”
This was what my reading guru said as she handed it to me over the summer.
I am from Appalachia. Technically, like a large proportion of American kids my age, I grew up in a suburb. I did however spend 10+ years living and working in the mountains and my kin are from there so I’m going to claim cultural rights.
I was excited about the book, writing about Appalachian culture is a new(ish) thing according to some of my pals who are wiser about literature and poetry than I. Apparently, just in the last 20 years or so books about the lives and souls of hillbillies are becoming more of a *thing*, rather than being solely portrayed as evil stalkers, stupid comedy-relief fools, or the bible-quoting sure-shots in most US war movies. Appalachian culture is unique and somewhat different from other cultures in the Southern US. For one, most people’s ancestors from that part of the South fought for the Union not for the Confederacy. If you go there, especially straight after spending a week in Richmond or Atlanta, you can feel the difference. People talk funny. They sound like me, or they sound like what I used to sound like before I ended up with some redneck, mid-Atlantic weird mutt of an accent.
The book was Serena, by Ron Rash, who clearly knows his Appalachian history. The book, on the surface, is about logging. Rich Yankees (of course) come and rape the land while poor Appalachian folks cut the trees, which is reasonably historically accurate. It is also set in the late 1920’s, after the Crash, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being set up there is some logger/enviro tension: a tension that still exists in those parts today. Pro Tip: (in case you get confused like me): Smoky is the range, Smokey is the bear.
I thought the book started pretty slow, but then I know the scene. Rash’s description of the different types of folk up thar in them mountains is brilliant. Of course they are stereotypes, but they are well done stereotypes and it sets a nice backdrop.
Serena (not an Appalachian) shows up, the new wife of the lumber company owner – George Pemberton. She is a bad ass. She can do all the things that gentle women aren’t supposed to be able to do – shoot, chop, eyeball a good straight Tulip Poplar or Hickory for felling. She’s also a bona fide bitch. I think I’m not giving away any spoilers here as you figure this out pretty fast if you read it. While is a female trope, it’s a trope done well. Serena has agency and makes decisions. Serena is tough and strong and also appalling. She is also much, much tougher than her husband George. The other central female central character is also pretty tough, just a different kind of tough than Serena. She’s well described, there are some tough-ass women in Appalachia, I’m related to a whole mess of them.
I liked the book, I didn’t love the book, but I was won around by the book. I am, however, Appalachia-style judgemental about such things so I was never going to love it (I prefer Charles Frazier, but to each her own).
After finishing the book, I decided to watch ‘Serena’ the movie. As with many movies based on books, it’s nothing like the book. I am not a snob about such things. Sometimes movies are better than the book (The Bourne films, trust me), but ‘Serena’ the movie was far, far worse than ‘Serena’ the book.
All of the book’s beauty was boiled away. Watching it, you kept tirelessly thinking it might come back, but it is the hope that kills you. The subtlety of the different Appalachian characters were either absent or so smashed up into a single character they lost any nuance. The mountain folk turned back into the standard-boring Southern stereotypes. Worse and I think so much worse I am going to be shouty… ALL OF THE WOMEN LOST THEIR POWER/AGENCY. They went from tough (yet flawed) women to crazy (think Mrs. Rochester) or just full on whimpy. All of their tough-ass characteristics were given to the male characters and the women, well they had to be entirely *saved* by the boys. In order to make them a bit more exciting than beige wall paper there were a few gratuitous sex scenes added. There were also couple of bat-shit crazy wailing scenes to show lament and to really just seal in that *women are there to be rescued or breed* stereotype.
I’m starting to get more than a little sick of this. Film makers still seem all too eager to revert back to the *women are there to be looked at* stereotypes, even when they have a better starting point from the original source. I know this has gone on in literature since time immemorial but really, can we just stop. Thankfully, Reese Witherspoon is getting sick of this too, so at least some films are getting better about turning women into 1950s stereotypes randomly. Hopefully, the next time Ron Rash has a book he wants to turn into a movie, he’ll run straight toward Pacific Standard productions, so Hollywood will stop turning his women into wimps.