Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mining the Gold

A couple of months ago I accidentally read a book of short stories by Ron Rash, entitled Nothing Gold Can Stay.  It was an accident because I do not routinely read short stories.  I have nothing against them, except, well, they are short.  I like to live with a story for awhile, savor it for as long as possible, even while I read furiously to the end.

That said, I loved Nothing Gold Can Stay.  It was not my first encounter with Rash's work, having read some of his novels previously.  One of the reasons that I enjoy his work is because of all the connections that I can make with it.  English Language Arts teachers know how important making connections to new text and new content is.  It is a great way to activate prior knowledge and prepare oneself for reading.  Not to mention that finding something familiar in a new story just makes it more fun.

The connection in the Gold stories is one of place.  The stories are set in Western North Carolina around Sylva, Canton, Cherokee, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  While there are many extraordinary characters in the collection, the setting feels like a character.  Though none of the stories share characters, they do share the familiar places, and so feel loosely connected.

Shortly after reading the stories, I was facilitating an online professional development course/ book study for some of the educators in my school district.  One of the texts that we were reading was Momaday's Man Made of Words essay.  In the essay, Momaday shares a Kiowa myth that underscores the importance of language.  One of the characters in the myth did not realize his danger because he was unfamiliar with the language of the other characters.  The discussion that resulted from this point of the essay reminded me of one of Rash's stories in Gold.

In "A Servant of History," a young, immature, and blathering man named Wilson thought he would surpass his teachers from Oxford by collecting stories and knowledge from Appalachian settlers that would provide a connection to the language and stories from England.  Being a pushy, know-it-all outsider proved to be a hinderance to gathering the information he sought, but his runaway mouth revealed more about him to the settlers than he realized.  Too late he realized that if he had paid more attention to history, specifically the animosity between clans McDonald and  Campbell, he might have recognized the danger his visit posed.

Another story that resonated was "Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven."  It disturbed me because as an educator, I have seen too many students find themselves in similar situations.  In this story, a bright, young couple had plans to attend college in the fall.  Only Jody makes it to the university, while Lauren remains at home and, like so many of their high school classmates, loses herself to drug use.  Jody returns after a year and attempts to persuade Lauren to return with him, but she has long abandoned any hope of having a better life.  Rash mentions how so many young people believe that the hard, poor, and hopeless life is inevitable.  This inevitably often leads students to sabotage themselves through various means as Lauren does.  The most heartbreaking part of the story, though, is the decision that Jody makes at the end.

The book contains several other stories, all of which quickly draw the reader in.  These stories were just the right length to read before sleeping each night.  And like the novels that I prefer, they gave plenty to ponder for days.  I hope you pick up a copy soon.

Some helpful references:
Momaday, N. S.  "Made Made of Words" excerpt.
This is the essay used in the online course that I facilitated.  It contains the story of the Arrowmaker, which provided the immediate connection, but it also speaks about the nature of storytelling and the Kiowa migration.  Momaday speaks of how any burden can be borne if there is a story about it.


Frost, R.  Nothing Gold Can Stay.
This is the poem from which Rash took the name for his work.

"'Nothing Gold' Stays Long in Appalachia." Scott Simon, NPR, interviews Ron Rash.  16 February 2013.

Maslin, J. (27 February 2012).  "Be Careful of the Locals:  They're Tough."  The New York Times book review.