Serena Summary
by Ron Rash

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Chapter 1 Summary

During the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression in America, George Pemberton returns to Western North Carolina after spending three months in Boston settling his father’s estate. Pemberton steps off the train at the town of Waynesville, where he is met by a young pregnant woman, Rachel Harmon, and her father Abe, who hides a Bowie knife beneath his shabby coat. Also waiting for Pemberton are Wilkie and Buchanan, his two partners in a logging business, the Boston Lumber Company.

Pemberton is not traveling alone. While in Boston he met and became engaged to a woman from Colorado named Serena, who has accompanied him back to North Carolina. Pemberton introduces his new wife to his business partners, who are impressed by her height, beauty, practical clothing, and the fact that she offers to shake their hand. Although Serena has come to live at the lumber camp, neither Buchanan’s wife nor Wilkie’s has made more than a single visit to the area.

Pemberton asks his partners about the state of the camp. Buchanan replies that there have been few problems aside from talk of a mountain lion. He says that although the big cats are hardly common in the areas, locals claim that a single, jet-black lion still roams the countryside. Unafraid of the talk, Serena comments that the panther would make excellent prey for her husband’s hunting.

Abe Harmon approaches the party and says that he has business with Pemberton. Serena calmly tells Abe that his daughter is lucky to be bearing Pemberton’s child but that she will receive no assistance from them. Furious, Abe comes at Pemberton with his knife. Harmon lunges with his knife, but Pemberton dodges the blow and plunges his own hunting knife into the old man’s chest. Harmon collapses and dies instantly.

Serena picks up the bowie knife and gives it to Rachel Harmon. She tells Rachel to sell the knife because it will be all she will ever receive from the Pembertons. The sheriff called, Pemberton decides to leave and makes for his Packard automobile. But Sheriff McDowell shows up and demands that Pemberton come back to his office. Pemberton refuses, and they get in the car and drive the six miles to the lumber camp.

On the way there, Pemberton explains the geography of the region, how people in Washington are pushing to buy most of the land for a national park. Pemberton's principal ally in the fight against the national park is Harris, a local copper magnate.

Pemberton and Serena are met at the door of their house by Joel Vaughn, a local youth who serves as a kind of factotum for Pemberton. Vaughan has a meal ready of meat, bread, cheese, and wine. Pemberton apologizes for the Spartan aspect of the house, but Serena doesn’t mind at all, commenting that money saved on luxury is freed to buy more timber tracts.

As Serena stitches up the gash from Harmon on his arm, Pemberton recalls their first meeting in Boston. Mrs. Lowell, a hostess, told Pemberton that Serena had asked about him but warned him that she had scared away every bachelor in Boston. But he fell for her at first sight, and on making love for the first time Serena uses the phrase, “a kind of annihilation.” 

Chapter 2 Summary

The next morning Pemberton introduces his wife to the workers at the camp. Serena rides out in front of everyone on a white Arabian horse, her wedding present from Pemberton. Astride the great horse in a male riding style, Serena appears imposing to the men in the camp and unlike any other woman they have ever seen. While Wilkie and Buchanan wear suits every day, Pemberton and Serena wear clothing reminiscent of the comfortable, practical clothes worn by the men.

Pemberton explains that Serena’s father owned a lumber company in Colorado and that she’s the equal of any man at the camp, her orders to be followed just as his.

After Pemberton’s speech, one of the men, a bearded fellow named Bilded, spits loudly on the ground. Serena gets off the Arabian, takes a pencil and paper, and walks over to Bilded. She...

(The entire section is 13,504 words.)