I purchased Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall on a whim at the 2016 Library of Congress National Book Festival. The gorgeous, eye-catching cover and intriguing story line drew me into this amazing book.
In Above the Waterfall, Rash explores environmental activism, drug addiction, and economic hardship. Each of his characters feels real; their hardships feel familiar. This fast-paced novel keeps the reader hooked, eager to find out what happens to Becky, a local park ranger, and Les, the longtime Sheriff close to retirement.
Be forewarned, this book is filled with tense moments. One of the most powerful scenes in the book involves a raid at the home of a meth addict. But this is one of the reasons that the book is significant beyond the scope of Appalachian literature—drug addiction and environmental activism are challenges that are not specific to Appalachia. Throughout this work, Rash forces his readers to ponder critical, relevant questions: Does spending time in nature bring out the best in each of us, or do natural remote locations provide cover for some of the worst human activities, such as the production and consumption of meth? Do we see the blessings that nature gives us, or do most of us, wrapped up in our technological devices, fail to see much of anything at all beyond our screens?
For readers who are interested in this book solely because the story is situated in Appalachia, you will no doubt enjoy Rash’s descriptive nature writing: “I leaned against the hood and looked at the mountains. A breeze stirred as the sun began to sink below them. Soon the leaves on the hardwoods would turn. Like the mountains are huddled under a big crazy quilt. That was what my grandmother used to say when it happened. Crazy quilt” (108).
Such paragraphs are captivating, filled with visual language. Rash does a wonderful job of describing the landscape around him, demonstrating a deep familiarity with nature. “Outside town, a roadside apple stand has opened. Red delicious and Granny Smiths brim the latticed baskets. Like the half-mown hay field across the road, a harbinger of mornings when first ground crackles and white breaths precede, trees start unblending and the leafers appear” (162).
Only someone familiar with agricultural practices would know that organic farmers typically wait until after the first frost to pick apples. Rash pays attention to such details, which makes his work delightful to read.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Appalachian literature, nature writing, or a good fast-paced mystery novel. This text could easily be used in a book club or incorporated into the classroom setting, perhaps in an Appalachian studies, English, geography, history, anthropology, or sociology course.
If this were a Goodreads review, I would give this book five out of five stars. A wonderful story written by an amazing storyteller. I’m very glad to have spent some time with Becky and Les in the mountains of North Carolina.