The Caretaker: A Novel

Image of The Caretaker: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 25, 2023
Reviewed by: 

The Caretaker stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the multiple award-winning books in Ron Rash’s impressive body of work.”

The dramatic issue, movement, and fulfillment in Ron Rash’s The Caretaker is tantamount to a Shakespearean tragedy in rhythm, scope and dynamic. The Appalachian set story is paced in five balanced acts taut with white knuckle drama and fueled by the gamut of human emotions giving rise to characters caught in a web of hubris, until the very moment the curtain spectacularly falls on a hard-won resolution.

Everything the reader hopes to get from Ron Rash is in The Caretaker: landscape as destiny, salt of the earth main characters caught in a moral dilemma, a chorus of porch-sitting townsmen lending pithy commentary, the influence of nature, and the steady beats of regional jargon so finely tuned it elicits language as character in a manner so economic that every word counts.  

It is 1951, and 21-year-old Jacob Hampton just wants to make it home from the Korean war to his bride in Watauga County, North Carolina. “Getting home is what mattered . . . Dr. Egan said the baby would come in May. That thought was the talisman Jacob carried with him.”

An only child from a prosperous family that owns a sawmill, and a general store in Laurel Fork, Jacob eloped with 16- year-old Naomi Clarke before he was conscripted. The elopement was a direct result of his parents’ abject disapproval of the girl he met outside a cinema in nearby Blowing Rock, when Jacob knew in the instant it was love at first sight.  

Naomi comes from nothing on a farm in east Tennessee. Now married and pregnant with Jacob’s baby, she is well aware the locals share her in-law’s low opinion of her and is unperturbed by Jacob’s disinheritance by his parents for the crime of their marriage. Spirited to the point of defiance, Naomi flaunts her condition before the townspeople, pouring salt on their collective distaste, as she clings to the refuge of Blackburn Gant, a blood-brother of Jacob’s entrusted to care for Naomi in his absence. 

Twenty-one-year-old Blackburn Gant is a social outcast. Facially disfigured at age ten from the ravages of polio, he’s the caretaker of the Laurel Fork cemetery, is stocky, short of stature, and walks with a slight limp. “Maintaining the grounds filled his days . . . the push mower he used for tending was whispery, respectful as Blackburn moved around the cemetery.”

The isolation of the graveyard position suits Blackburn for one reason: “The dead could do nothing worse to him than the living had already done.” Loyal to Jacob and now secretly enamored of Naomi, Blackburn is a man of honor and a trustworthy caretaker in more ways than one. An oath keeper with a moral compass, he takes his charge of Naomi seriously and fulfills his duties valiantly until Jacob returns home from the war shell-shocked and damaged, only to find circumstances changed.

Cora Hampton is diabolical. Married to the malleable Daniel, she’s lost two children and keeps a stronghold on Jacob all the more. An unconscionable, controlling woman not afraid of making threats, it is her selfish plan to bend Jacob to her will that spawns a series of elaborate lies and dark secrets affecting all in her orbit throughout the rising drama of the story, holding the reader fast and longing for justice.

Rash is at his best in writing dialogue. His regional characters speak authentically with taciturn, mood-defining language telling of a people who play their cards close to the vest. With regard to Blackburn’s unsightly, disfigured face, he is described by the locals simply as “afflicted.” And when Blackburn is challenged in a pool hall by a bully from his past, a local intervenes. “I seen who started all this,” the man behind the counter said to Blackburn. “But if you don’t stop now I’ll law the sheriff on you.”

The author’s regional descriptions are specific. With regard to indiginous flowers on the outskirts of the Laurel Fork graveyard, Blackburn notes, “In the woods, they’d mark spring’s passage like a calendar—bloodroot and liverleaf, then mayapple and trillium, bugbane and blue violet.”

Rash’s vistas are strongly panoramic. “As Blackburn stared out the cottage window, ground fog purled around the stones. . . . From this hilltop, the whole valley could be seen, an unfurling patchwork of farms and woods giving way to mountains appearing endless as heaven itself was said to be.”

The use of imagery in The Caretaker is the glue that binds: “Blackburn followed the path down to the homeplace. As the land leveled, wildflowers appeared . . . Despite four decades, a sense of lives lived remained. An orchard lifted its limbs above briars and broomsedge. A plow, rusty blade sunk in the earth, wooden handles upright, seemed waiting to resume.”

Issues of forbidden love and star-crossed lovers underpin smalltown judgement, the bonds of friendship, bad lines drawn, and a love that defies even death. The Caretaker stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the multiple award-winning books in Ron Rash’s impressive body of work. Its somber, realistic tone will captivate the authors’ legion of devoted readers and send the uninitiated straight to Ron Rash’s celebrated backlist.