Click here to read reviewer Nicholas Thomas's take on One Foot in Eden.
Ron Rash’s first novel offers a hint of the work to come, a writer who perceives the world from inside the complicated motives of his characters, an interior landscape of moral conflicts and few choices.
In One Foot in Eden, time and place are central. A Korean War hero is dead, the obvious suspect presenting a guileless face to a sheriff who understands people as well as he appreciates his own failures, a fair man locked in a marriage defined by the loss of an unborn child, the damage irreparable in a place where family is everything.
When Holland Winchester’s mother calls Sheriff Will Alexander to report her son missing, she names his murderer and her suspicions of the motive. Since her hardscrabble farm abuts that of the man she accuses, Mrs. Winchester is entirely convinced of the truth of her statement. Inclined to agree, Alexander does a thorough investigation but is unable to crack the veneer of the young farmer, Billy Holcombe, or his wife, Amy: “It looks like you got away with it, Billy.”
But as timeless as the Appalachian landscape that gives back nothing freely to those who seek to make a living from this land, the laws of nature are immutable, no bad deed without consequences. The memory of place is long and unforgiving, humanity’s demands for even the most basic needs hard-won. Certainly murder has been done, but in this part of the country in the early 1950s, nothing is simple - particularly the agonizing labor of nurturing a tobacco crop vulnerable to any number of catastrophes.
As dense as the sheriff’s own history with family and farming, the decisions that shape the future - and sometimes sever the ties of the past - this tale is told from more than one perspective. Sheriff Alexander; Billy Holcombe; his wife, Amy; their son, Isaac; and Alexander’s deputy, Bobby - each adds his story to the whole, proving that nothing exists in a moral vacuum.
Rash’s writing is both precise and heartbreaking, an intimate understanding between man and soil, the definitions of lives spent in back-breaking toil, passing from one generation to another. Steeped in history, Oconee County is rich with the stories of those who have come before, all too soon to be obliterated. The Carolina Power Company will build a dam and flood the valley, burying generations of farmers and their dreams in a burst of progress.
But before that fateful day, this story will tell itself in the desperate decisions of a man and his wife yearning for a child, the actions of one tainting all, including a broken mother and an old woman named as witch by the fears of the ignorant. What begins in shame begets a final reckoning, the land reclaiming the futile efforts of those who bear the burden of their decisions, unable to make peace with an act of violence in a moment of choice.