DG MARTIN COLUMN: Blowing Rock and Korea in 1950

Count on Ron Rash to use his stories to take his readers on a trip back in time, usually to some place in North Carolina, as he did most famously in his novel “Serena” when he took us to the North Carolina forested mountains in the early 1900s.

D.G. Martin

He has done it again in his latest book, “The Caretaker,” which mostly takes place in and around the mountain town of Blowing Rock in 1950.

However, Rash’s book opens on a frozen river in Korea where an American soldier from Blowing Rock, Jacob Hamilton and a North Korean combatant are engaged in a brutal hand-to-hand knife fight.

In what may be the best description of the horrors of war that I have ever read, Rash describes in his first chapter how the two warriors fought each other, their own desperate exhaustion, and the frozen river.

On the ice above the river, “the soldier lunged, not to stab but to knock Jacob off balance. Jacob fell and the ice cracked. The other man was on top now. Jacob raised his left arm and their forearms locked a moment before the Korean’s blade raked Jacob’s wrist. Another stab sent the knife into Jacob’s left shoulder and his arm went limp as more ice fractured. Jacob felt a sudden distance from everything around him, even his own heaving breaths. The bayonet slipped out of his hand. World and time unbuckled into a luminous vanishing, his body a burdensome shell so easily shredded. Let it all go, it won’t hurt long.

“As the North Korean raised his knife, Jacob’s right arm shoved the man off balance. The blade tip pierced the ice as Jacob twisted free. Inside the moon’s circle of light, the soldier pried his knife from the ice and Jacob picked up the bayonet. Almost ceremonially, they knelt before each other.

“Their breathing stopped, widening the silence. Rising into a crouch, the North Korean slipped, fell backward, his flexed elbows breaking the ice and plunging him into the water. Half submerged but still wielding the knife, the man sought purchase, lifted one arm into the ice, and then the second. Jacob dropped his bayonet, crawled forward, and shoved the Korean under. When the head thrashed to the surface, Jacob, flat against the ice now, grabbed a fistful of hair and shoved harder, deeper.”

The wounded American soldier, Jacob Hamilton, is a central character in Rash’s book. Back in Blowing Rock, before he was drafted and sent to fight in Korea, Jacob built a friendship with Blackburn Gant, the caretaker of a church graveyard. Because of a severe bout with polio, Gant’s face became disfigured to the extent that people found it impossible to look at him. Jacob befriended Blackburn, and the two established a firm friendship.

Jacob fell deeply in love with Naomi, but his parents never accepted her and, in fact, had essentially disowned both Jacob and Naomi.

Before he left for Korea, he begged his parents to help take care of Naomi while he was away. But they refused.

With Jacob in Korea, Blackburn became Naomi’s only friend.
As he recovered from his wounds in Korea, Jacob was anxious to return to Blowing Rock and to Naomi, and their child who was growing in Naomi’s womb.

Before arriving home, he learned from his parents that Naomi had died in childbirth and was buried in a casket placed in a grave dug by his friend Blackburn.

But with Naomi believed to be dead, Jacob found it impossible to settle into anything close to a happy life.

Ron Rash and his great story telling gifts give his readers a satisfying end to Jacob’s struggle.

One that is not to be missed.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”