Depression-era North Carolina was a hard place. In the Western part of the state most people worked hard from cradle to grave for very little reward or luxury, regardless of the economic climate. Most families relied on the land passed on to them from previous generations and survived with the bare necessities. The Depression made men more willing to take on dangerous, even deadly work, and logging the verdant timber forests of the Appalachian region was probably one of the deadliest professions of the time.
George Pemberton, is a well-educated, patrician Northerner with wealth to spare. He owns vast tracts of forest in the Great Smokey Mountains, and his goal is to strip the land bare, then move on to the next promising valley and it’s resources. Unlike many of the timber executives working in the Mid-atlantic and South, he chooses to live amongst the loggers in the temporary camps built to shelter, feed and sometimes bury those who work for him. Even the managers whom Pemberton employs, leave their wives back home, because a logging town is no place for a lady. Pemberton satisfies his needs with a young, local girl, Rachel Harmon, who works in the kitchens and delivers meals to his house. Rachel soon finds herself pregnant and is abandoned by Pemberton when he leaves to go back to Boston to bury his father and settle his estate. While back home, Pemberton meets, courts, and marries Serena, a woman with a sketchy past, an impenetrable will and a wild, untamable temperament that makes her pretty much unstoppable, whether she is fighting early environmentalists working to establish National Park lands, or devising plans to separate uncooperative partners from company interests and investments.
The novel opens as Serena and Pemberton travel back to North Carolina, each basking in their respective dreams and ambitions to become the golden couple of the timber logging industry. Pemberton is eyeing new tracts in North Carolina and Tennessee; Serena has her cold, impassive heart set on Brazil.
A visibly pregnant Rachel and her father are waiting at the station, but they are not there to welcome the Pembertons. Spurred by his rage at Pemberton for taking advantage of his 17-year-old daughter, Harmon challenges him to a knife fight. Serena quietly incites Pemberton to engage in the fight and he easily guts the drunken Harmon, killing him almost instantly. Serena then congratulates him for dispatching the problem so efficiently and informs Rachel that she will not receive anything from them. Ever. We know from the first chapter, that Serena will have no problem surviving rough life in a logging camp.
The entire story is Shakespearean in scope. The locals—the ever changing tide of loggers and lumberjacks who live and die on the side of the mountain—act as a sort of chorus, relating the news of the day, pitching folksy humor and advice and providing a running commentary on the knotty machinations of the Pembertons, which have an increasingly lethal impact on those mired in their livelihood.
Neither Serena or Pemberton are nice. They are the bad guys. This is why Serena is such a delicious read. In each chapter Serena ups the ante in an ongoing battle of wills against her husband, his business partners and investors, the local sheriff and of course Rachel, who has one thing that Serena can never have. Serena is resolute, tenacious and unfaltering. She will stop at nothing to achieve her dream of South American timber domination.
There is never a lull in the action in Serena. There are eagles and rattlesnakes, a bear and a Komodo Dragon; impalements, amputations and drownings; murders, fights and fires. The local people are the heros—they are witty, canny and visionary as well as kind-hearted, self-reliant and good. And there is Serena Pemberton—wicked, wanton, wild, and oh, so easy to abhor. Take her out for a read. You won’t be disappointed.