An Unrelenting North Carolina Past
By Jeanne E. Fredriksen
“The World Made Straight” by Ron Rash. Available in hardcover, paperback, digital book, and on DVD.
Old conflicts die slow and hard, and Ron Rash’s 2006 novel, “The World Made Straight,” tells a raw, mountain home tale stretching from 1974 to the Shelton Laurel Massacre of 1863. The historic marker for the event stands at the intersection of North Carolina state highways 208 and 212. The graves of the 13 kin who were slain rest in a cemetery just off N.C. 212.
When 17-year-old Travis Shelton stumbles upon a field of marijuana plants, he thinks he has it made. He cuts some of the plants and sells them to Leonard Schuyler. Leonard is a mountain boy who was smart enough to get out and make a good life but through his own missteps managed to find himself back where he started. When Travis goes back for more plants, he stumbles into the bear trap Carlton Toomey set for the plant thief. A tough man with his wits about him, Toomey’s not ready to let Travis walk away easily.
Eventually, Travis moves in with Leonard, who occasionally deals drugs, fanatically studies old Civil War journals, and has walls of books in his ramshackle trailer. After all, he was a teacher when he left Madison County. Travis embraces the books, devouring all the knowledge he can, yet he knows nothing of the history of his family and Shelton Laurel. Leonard, regretting his own past, helps Travis to find a way out of a life that will go nowhere before the viciousness of the past catches up with him.
Rash tells a story of personal discovery, family and history. His literary style and suspense-filled storytelling meld the characters to their turbulent, forgotten past, and to their desire for independence. He spares no one through his microscope.
His writing is simple, showing the things that hold a person back and the desires that give hope. The blush of first love is sweet against the stark reality of life. Many of the characters are good people who simply do bad things.
It is clear that life is never easy for these folk, and there’s never a doubt that their outcomes are directly related to the choices they make. In that, these characters are like anyone from anywhere else. The difference lies in their seclusion and lack of exposure to a larger world.
Last month, the filmed-entirely-in-North-Carolina movie version of the novel was released. It stars Noah Wyle (“E.R.”) as Leonard, Jeremy Irvine (“Warhorse”) as Travis, and singer/songwriter Steve Earle as Carlton. The state premiere was held at the North Carolina Museum of History and other select theaters screened the film in limited distribution. It is available for streaming through Amazon Prime and On Demand.
Translated to the screen, it is a slow, cerebral story. The performances are tight and studied – Wyle’s performance has been called his best to date. The marriage of cinematography and editing yields such a strong sense of place that the beauty of our mountains juxtaposed with the desperation of need is remarkable.
The book is a must read. The film is rental quality.