“A Land More Kind Than Home”
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow; 320 pages; $24.99
By Gina Webb
Sundays have turned sinister in rural Marshall, N.C., since pastor Carson Chambliss took over the local church 10 years ago. Newspapers taped over the windows conceal the services during which normally “God-fearing folks” who would never take risks have begun to test their faith in dangerous games.
But when two young brothers witness something they shouldn’t, and one dies under suspicious circumstances, the subsequent investigation turns up some ugly truths about what goes on behind the walls of “the simple concrete block building” where the boys’ mother has formed fierce attachments — especially to the scarred and charismatic preacher.
Nine-year-old Jess Hall and his brother Christopher, affectionately nicknamed “Stump, ” are just boys being boys one afternoon during the summer of 1986, when they get caught spying on their mother. Jess runs to hide in the woods, but Stump, an autistic 13-year-old who has been mute since birth, isn’t fast enough to avoid detection.
What — and who — they see coincides with an urgent campaign to “heal” Stump, who is then especially chosen by the preacher to be saved: “Today is his special day, ” their mother tells them. “The Lord has called him.”
Chambliss, however, has convinced his congregation that safety and being saved are two very separate things. Though Jess soon realizes his brother needs protection from the very people who want to heal him, he is powerless to intervene.
After what appears to be an accidental death, the local sheriff is called in to investigate. It isn’t long before he digs into Chambliss’ murky past, unearthing a doozy of a record that couldn’t be further removed from Jesus’ teachings.
The pastor’s cultlike congregation won’t talk; and in the tightly knit community, that leaves few who dare to question Chambliss’ godlike authority.
Reminiscent of Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” (2010) and Grant Jerkin’s recent “The End of the Road, ” newcomer Wiley Cash’s novel embeds a tender coming-of-age story within a suspense-filled thriller. Inspiration came from a real-life incident in Chicago, but the author used his own Southern Baptist upbringing in an evangelical church to place the events in a more familiar setting.
Three narrators divide the storytelling — an elderly midwife, Adelaide Lyle, who has been opposed to the preacher’s stranglehold over the congregation since his arrival; the sheriff in charge of the investigation, Clem Barefield; and Stump’s younger brother Jess.
Spanning the turn of the century to the present, each voice layers meaning and insights, adding perspective and history: Adelaide, the oldest, recalls a time when a genuine faith held the community together, along with the “old-timey ways” of folk medicine and midwifery that once went hand-in-hand with a sensible way of life.
Though he still considers himself an outsider after 25 years, Barefield knows his county, especially the sacrifices the locals will make to cling to their addictions, often confused with their faith and vice versa: “People out in these parts can take hold of religion like it’s a drug, and they don’t want to give it up once they’ve got hold of it. It’s like it feeds them, and when they’re on it they’re likely to do anything these little backwoods churches tell them to do.”
But it’s Jess, his glimpses of the people around him all the more perceptive by virtue of being so untouched by experience, who draws us into the rich emotional terrain of the novel. Whether in the exquisitely sensitive rapport with his brother or the budding relationship with his ne’er-do-well grandfather, Cash perfectly captures the joy, sorrow, confusion and dignity of a child as Jess copes with the mysterious world of adults and an earthquake of grief that changes his world in a matter of days.
“A Land More Kind Than Home” has its share of stock Southern tropes — the disfigured preacher, the fevered church services, the alcoholic grandfather, the religious mama — but they’re also recognizable to anyone who has ever lived in a place like Marshall. Their believability depends on the author’s skill at steering them clear of cliches.
Cash accomplishes this with well-defined, distinct voices and subtle, considered details on every page: A wife who unknowingly steps outside to hear of her son’s death “stopped once to pull her robe around her and kick the snow from her slippers.”
A great-aunt who raised an orphaned girl shells beans and talks about the child’s “dead mama and daddy like they’d just stepped out into the yard to check the sky for rain clouds.” The sacred spot where an autistic boy goes “when the world got too loud” is an empty shoe box his mama gave him labeled: “Quiet Box — Do Not Open.”
Although he leaves that one closed, Cash opens many other quiet boxes throughout this clear-sighted, graceful debut — some dangerous in the hands of men, others capable of providing true healing, many of which explore the slippery territory between man’s law and God’s — and adds his promising new voice to Southern fiction.
Wiley Cash grew up in Gastonia, N.C., and now lives in West Virginia, where he teaches English at Bethany College.
By Gina Webb for the AJC Arts and Culture Blog