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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Caretaker

Narrator: James Patrick Cronin

Random House Audio

ISBN: 9780385544276

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: 09/26/2023

Format: Other (e-book, hardcover, audio)

My Rating: 5 Stars +++ (ARC)


Told against the backdrop of the Korean War as a small Appalachian town sends its sons to battle, The Caretaker by award-winning author Ron Rash ("One of the great American authors at work today" —The New York Times) is a breathtaking love story and a searing examination of the acts we seek to justify in the name of duty, family, honor, and love.

It’s 1951 in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Blackburn Gant, his life irrevocably altered by a childhood case of polio, seems condemned to spend his life among the dead as the sole caretaker of a hilltop cemetery. It suits his withdrawn personality, and the inexplicable occurrences that happen from time to time rattle him less than interaction with the living. But when his best and only friend, the kind but impulsive Jacob Hampton, is conscripted to serve overseas, Blackburn is charged with caring for Jacob’s wife, Naomi, as well.

Sixteen-year-old Naomi Clarke is an outcast in Blowing Rock, an outsider, poor and uneducated, who works as a seasonal maid in the town’s most elegant hotel. When Naomi eloped with Jacob a few months after her arrival, the marriage scandalized the community, most of all his wealthy parents who disinherited him. Shunned by the townsfolk for their differences and equally fearful that Jacob may never come home, Blackburn and Naomi grow closer and closer until a shattering development derails numerous lives.

A tender examination of male friendship and rivalry as well as a riveting, page-turning novel of familial devotion, The Caretaker brilliantly depicts the human capacity for delusion and destruction all too often justified as acts of love.

My Review

STUNNING! A literary work of art.

Ron Rash, the Southern master storyteller, returns with his 20th highly anticipated stellar novel (his best yet)—THE CARETAKER. It is well worth the wait! With beautiful prose, a moving, emotional tale of three outcasts, set against the backdrop of 1951 North Carolina Appalachian mountains, the Korean War, a hilltop cemetery, and a highly relatable hero, the caretaker.

THE CARETAKER features three exceptional characters and their fight against those who want to destroy them with selfish motives—a superb blending of Southern, historical fiction, suspense, coming of age, family drama, small rural town, and literary fiction.

Top Books of 2023! Checks all the boxes of what I look for in a novel.

Three main characters:

Gant Blackburn

Jacob Hampton

Naomi Clarke Hampton

Set in the Blowing Rock, North Carolina area in 1951, we meet Blackburn Gant, (16) the caretaker at the local hilltop cemetery. He was stuck with polio at a young age and still has a limp and a partially disfigured face. The target of bullies in school and the town, his parents decided it would be best if he took the job offered by Pastor Hunnicutt as THE CARETAKER of the cemetery and lived onsite in the cottage provided. They then moved to Florida.

Gant has a big job. He is solid and rugged. He has to dig the graves (often with blisters) facilitate the services, markers, gravestones, and flowers, ensure the grounds are cared for, and the ghosts are happy. He is comfortable being a loner and sees and hears everything that goes on in the cemetery and those who mourn. He is observant, respects the dead, and takes it upon himself to ensure nothing is disturbed. He has to put up with teens and vandalism, especially during Halloween and is on call 24/7.

Even on the first nights, Blackburn had not been afraid. "The dead could do nothing worse to him than the living had already done." People were ugly, claiming one look at his face would scare off any ghosts. That was five years ago.

"Caretaking was a duty to the living and the dead."

His best friend Jacob Hampton took Gant Blackburn under his wing as a child and remained his friend. Jacob was from a wealthy family, owning the Hampton Store. They decided if they handed out credit or not. They had a lot of pull in the town.

His parents, Daniel and Cora Hampton, had lost two other children, and they were very controlling and manipulative with Jacob (especially the mother). They wanted him to graduate college, marry a girl of their choosing, and return and take over the store. Keep him under their thumb no matter what he desires.

However, Jacob had other plans. He did not care for college, enjoyed manual labor, and worked his way up at his summer jobs. He met a girl who stole his heart from the first meeting. They eloped when Naomi was 16. Unfortunately, she was not the type of girl his parents wanted. They demanded he get the marriage annulled or else.

Naomi Clark came from Tennessee and was a local maid at The Green Park Inn in Blowing Rock. She was uneducated and had to leave school to help take care of her dad's farm. She was beautiful and worked hard to learn things to further her education.

When Jacob's parents learned of the girl and Jacob's relationship, they refused to accept it and told him if he married her, they would disinherit him. He went against them and married Naomi.

He and Naomi worked hard and lived in a farmhouse, building a happy life without the parent's money or support. Due to the parents, the entire town spread word that Naomi was an unacceptable partner for Jacob.

Then Jacob receives the draft notice for the Korean War. This was about the time Naomi was pregnant. He tried one last time to reason with his parents since they would be grandparents to help care for Naomi while he was away. They turned their back on him and Naomi.

Jacob then turned to his best friend, Gant, to help care for Naomi while he was away. Of course, Gant agrees. (I loved him!) Jacob goes off to war, and Gant does his best to help Naomi; however, the town does not support these two outcasts, with ongoing gossip and bullying making things difficult.

After a horrific encounter with Jacob's dad, Gant and Naomi decide it is in her best interest and the baby's safety to move back to Tennessee to live with her dad and her sister's help until the baby is born. She and Jacob continue to write letters, and he cannot wait to get home to them. Gant goes back and forth to check on them.

Then Jacob is hurt and on a medical discharge and is sent home. (the book opens with this war front tragedy). This is when The Hamptons devise an evil, sinister plan to keep their son away from Naomi and the baby. They go to the extremes, blackmailing/buying their way with Naomi's father and threaten Gant later when he figures out the plan.

Will their plan work? The Hamptons could destroy him and his job. Is Blackburn supposed to live a lie? Little does Jacob know there is also a battlefield (war) raging at the homefront that will change his life.

What comes next will keep you in suspense and on the edge of your seat. Blackburn is the one caught in the middle and holds all the cards. What he says or does not say can change the outcome and the future of all concerned. Will he keep silent or speak up?

You must read to find out—I adored the ending!

I LOVED THE CARETAKER— Stunning and impressive! My top book of 2023! Rash is a skilled writer, and he shines with his beautiful writing. His exceptional, well-developed characters jump off the page with an original, twisty plot. The relatable characters will remain with you long after the book ends. I read it in one sitting and could not put it down.

Of course, my favorite character was Gant Blackburn. He had a heart of gold and was tormented by many and the story's hero. The setting was vivid, and the cemetery was like another character. Jacob's parents were pure evil.

I enjoyed the author's inspiration for THE CARETAKER and his honest struggles with the novel's writing. Thank you for sharing this story with the world! It is everything you expect from the author. He dives deep into the human psyche as each character has choices to make, both good and evil.

A bittersweet story of love and loss, I highly recommend THE CARETAKER and Ron Rash's other books. Let's hope this is not his last book. I would love to see a sequel to catch up with these characters that are too good to end.

For fans of Authors William Kent Krueger, Allen Eskens, Diane Chamberlain, Amor Towles, Wiley Cash, and David Joy.


Thanks to #Doubleday for a gifted e-ARC via #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I also purchased the hardcover copy (beautiful) and purchased the audio narrated by James Patrick Cronin, delivering a moving and engaging outstanding performance. #CoverLove

Check out the links below for more about the story, features, interviews with the author, and inspiration behind the book.

@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

Pub Date: Sept 26, 2023

My Rating: 5 Stars +++

On a personal note:

I'm a huge fan of the author, and THE CARETAKER resonated with me on many levels. I am a native of NC, and as a child, teen, and adult, I spent much time in Blowing Rock, Boone, and Banner Elk areas. I am very familiar with The Green Park Inn, Chetola Resort, Bob Timberlake Inn, The Manor, Mast Farm Inn, etc., as my two sons attended North Carolina Mountain College—Both now live in Winston-Salem, NC.

I am very close to the author's age, and we just celebrated September birthdays even though I am a year older, so I grew up in this era. I also had a remarkable childhood best friend, a girl stuck by polio with a limp and a disfigured face, and I stood by her side through high school and after. Later, she married a wonderful guy (his brother had polio), and they had two children. They remained in NC after I moved away to Atlanta and then South Florida, but I tried to stay in touch. She now has Alzheimer's. This story reminded me so much of her with a great heart and soul. She overcame so much. Thank you for this beautiful story.

Praise for The Caretaker

“Stellar. . . Rash writes about the North Carolina mountains and their inhabitants with exceptional beauty and grace. In The Caretaker, he has created a Shakespearian plot so riveting that it begs to be read in one sitting. . . Rash’s prose is spare, yet piercingly sharp. . . Like Richard Russo, he’s a narrative maestro who creates entire communities, giving brief but meaningful backstories to characters big and small. . . Readers will likely find themselves gallop¬ing toward the end of this novel, but should be sure to stop to appreciate its quieter moments. . . The Caretaker is an unforgettable novel of class, power, war, family, yearning and betrayal. Don’t miss it.”

— BookPage (Starred)

“A nimbly plotted, suspenseful romance with a twist. . . Rash writes with finesse and affection, as usual, of western North Carolina and its people. But the mood isn’t mere nostalgia—there’s a flint and an unflinching realism underneath. . . Rash’s 20th book is among his best.”— Kirkus Reviews (Starred)

“Potent and rewarding. . . Rash expertly and seamlessly ratchets up the suspense and melodrama. . . The lyrically nuanced prose faithfully evokes the Appalachian landscape, and Rash again showcases an ability to dig beneath the surface of his characters to expose their base desires and intentions. This is exactly the kind of humanitarian storytelling that fans have come to expect and savor from him.”

— Publishers Weekly (Starred)

“[Rash is a] master storyteller. . . In lyrical understated prose, Rash explores themes of devotion, deception, and family ties in this unforgettable story that will appeal to fans of Alice Munro and William Kent Krueger.”

— Booklist

The first novel in 10 years and 20th book from award-winning author Ron Rash, “one of the great American authors at work today”

—The New York Times

“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. . . 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. . . 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.”

— Claire Fullerton, New York Journal of Books

"With each Ron Rash story, you expect flawed people trying desperately to survive against the odds and a rich sense of place, and images that linger, and beautiful language that you catch yourself reading over and over. What you don't always expect is a wicked plot. The Caretaker delivers all of the above in a story that becomes a race to the finish."

—John Grisham

“Ron Rash is one of the South’s most beloved storytellers, and his latest novel doesn’t disappoint. . . Heartfelt.”

— Suzanne Van Atten, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Praise for Ron Rash

“One of the best living American writers.”

— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Recalls both John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy.”

— The New Yorker (on Serena)

“A true literary master.”

— Greenville Journal

“The power of Rash’s stories lies in [the] small moments of connection amid all the noise of rupture and heartbreak. Rash writes with a direct precision that puts the reader at ease. Here is a storyteller who not only knows his characters, but knows all the details around them a well.”

— The New York Times Book Review, The Shortlist

“The Blue-Collar Bard. . . [Rash] distill[s] his prose into taut, muscular portraits of mountain life. . . Every poem, every story, [is] an attempt to honor the beautiful, troubled, often contradictory and violent world of Southern Appalachia without blurring its edges. . . [His work] explore[s] the ways in which rural Appalachia has been both shaped and destroyed by people at war with the land, and in some cases, at war with one another: the flooding of mountain valleys, the battle over wild rivers, the slow creep of the drug economy into desperate communities. The conflict between humans and their environment is not a regional concern, and [these are] not ‘Southern’ stories; they [are] American stories that [happen] to occur in the South.”

— Garden & Gun, August/September 2020

“[An] author of remarkable skill who cares for the South, in all its complexities. . . Rash’s writing is never easy, but it is also lovely, moving, and rich in history and culture, just like the Appalachian region it so beautiful captures.”

— Library Journal

Features | Media

About the Author

RON RASH is the author of the PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestselling novel Serena, in addition to the critically acclaimed novels The Risen, Above the Waterfall, The Cove, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; five collections of poems; and seven collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Nothing Gold Can Stay, a New York Times bestseller, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and In the Valley. Three times the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, his books have been translated into seventeen languages. He teaches at Western Carolina University. WEBSITE







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