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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ron Rash writes The Cove, and Flute Music in Peru

I never expected to be thinking about flutes when I went to Peru, nor when I began reading Ron Rash's new novel THE COVE on the return flightNor did I expect, on the way to Machu Picchu, to sit next to Ulla, a beautiful Finish flautist with a doctorate from Juilliard.  And when I fell in love with The Cove's female protagonist Laurel, I didn't expect to be thinking about the $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation.  That's the magic of synchronicity, though.  Like stars aligning with a grand design, our lives gain meaning as we discover how we are connected to each other.
Laurel, scarred by a birthmark, lived in the remote Appalachian Mountains during World War I.  Her only escape from loneliness was found during brief conversations with her brother, or when listening to the songs of the wild birds.  It's not hard to imagine why she was drawn to the mysterious man who suddenly appeared in the cove, and to the melodic flute music that wafted into the air as she knelt at the creek washing clothes.
"At first, Laurel thought it was a warbler or thrush, though unlike any she'd heard before, its song more sustained, as if so pure no breath need carry it into the world...She remembered the bird Miss Calicut had shown the class.  A Carolina Parakeet, Miss Calicut had said, and unfolded a handkerchief to reveal the green body and red and yellow head."
Laurel had been forced to drop out of school when her parents both died. Shunned by her community, no path to a more hopeful future existed for Laurel, no room of her own in which to dream or paint or write or compose, certainly no "Gift of Freedom Award." And then suddenly, a stranger appeared.
Laurel and Virginia Woolf (author of the essay "A Room of One's Own" and inspiration for the $50,000 award) might have been dear friends had they been able to penetrate the veil separating author from character. So deftly does Ron Rash (recipient of the O'Henry Prize) draw Laurel, that I would not have been surprised if the flesh-and-blood Virginia Woolf had suddenly appeared in the shadowy recesses of the cove.  After all, the two women shared the same era.  Perhaps Virginia is with Laurel in the cove now, her spirit flitting between the pages of this beautiful, sparse novel, like the sad spirits of the extinct Carolina Parakeets.

The day before our group left Peru, my friend Roxanne and I wandered into a museum courtyard in Cusco. We were quickly drawn into a side room by a Peruvian Quechua man.  On the walls of the room, encased in glass, were ancient pre-Incan flutes.  Spread out on a table were dozens of replicas, made by this man and his family.  One by one, he picked up the flutes, showing us how to hold them to our lips, how to warble and whistle, how to make the sounds of hummingbirds and frogs and parrots and parakeets. Most of the flutes were made of fired clay, though one was carved of a condor's leg bone.
As I was reading The Cove, I thought of Ulla's flute music and of the ancient flute music of Peru.  I thought of the old Finish tradition Ulla had told us about.  "In my country," she said, "when a warrior returns home, it is music that brings his soul back into his body."  And just now, as I was researching the Carolina Parakeet, I discovered that the last two known living parakeets were mates that lived together for 32 years.  Lady Jane died in 1917, and the male died shortly after.  His name was Incas.

In The Cove, it is music that brings together Laurel and the stranger.  He is a warrior unable to return home.  She is a stranger in her own land.  Like Incas and Lady Jane's, theirs is a love story you won't soon forget.