Disturbing read but well worth the effort

The World Made Straight continues American author Ron Rash's exploration of the claustrophobic landscapes and relationships.

Ron Rash
Text Publishing


Born and raised in the Carolinas, Ron Rash specialises in darkly claustrophobic local stories that explore the interaction between individual lives and the physical and historical landscape that surrounds them.

These are states that dwell in and are dominated by the shadow of the Appalachian mountains where, as one of the main characters in The World Made Straight puts it: "Landscape [is] destiny ... the sense of being closed in, of human limitation ... [people] ... live in the passive voice."

Escape may be possible, but it comes at a price.

First published in 2006, and recently released in its Australasian edition, the story is set in Madison County during the 1970s and centres around two main characters: Travis Shelton, the teenage son of a local tobacco farmer; and ex-teacher turned drug dealer Leonard Shuler.

At 17, Travis has no definite plans for his future; he has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps, but neither does he intend to return to high school for the autumn semester and his main concern at this point is whether or not he can afford the warrant for his car. So when he stumbles across a marijuana plantation near one of his favourite fishing spots, he immediately absconds with a couple of plants that he sells to Leonard for enough money to solve his immediate cashflow problems.

Emboldened by the prospect of easy riches, Travis repeats the process and is caught by the plot’s owner, who cuts his Achilles tendon and warns him, prophetically, that next time he will not get off so lightly. His equally furious father throws Travis out, and he ends up back at the dealer’s ramshackle caravan where a bemused Leonard suddenly finds himself de facto guardian of a boy he barely knows.

But Travis’ inquisitive mind and desire to learn reminds him that he once aspired to something more than selling drugs to teenagers, while Leonard’s unorthodox teaching style engages Travis’ interest in a way that school never did. When he learns about the execution of 13 members of the Shelton family by their Confederate neighbours during the Civil War, he becomes determined to find out all that he can about the past.

At first it seems that the combination of the youth’s impulsiveness and the older man’s passivity may balance each other out and save them both, but Leonard’s own family history harbours a secret about the Sheltons’ betrayal that he must ultimately "make straight" before either can be free.

Rash’s stories are firmly located in time and place but have a universalism that transcends both. 

Although his characters sometimes border on the stereotypical, they also represent a reality we need to recognise and acknowledge. There is much about The World Made Straight that is disturbing and, as such, it is not an easy read, but one that is worth the effort.

Cushla McKinney is a local scientist.

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