I love southern fiction, particularly when the stories take place in the Appalachian Mountains. I don’t know why, though my suspicion has always been that I lived in the south in some previous life. There seems to be a couple of varieties of southern literature – the kind with loveable, quirky characters where the plots often involve cooking and food; and the sinister, gothic stories of the darker side of life in the valleys of the mountains where families have lived for a couple of hundred years.
A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash, falls into the latter category.
There was absolutely nothing uplifting about this dark story of a 14-year-old boy, mute since birth, who dies during a “healing service” in the church attended by his mother. The members of River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following – led by Pastor Carson Chambliss – handle snakes and lay on hands based on the Gospel of Mark 16: 17-18.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongue; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
The story is narrated by three very different characters. Adelaide Lyle is an elderly woman who lived all of her life in the area where this book takes place – the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. She was a member of this church for a very long time, and watched with sadness as it changed from a comfortable place of worship to a place where it no longer seemed Jesus lived. She alone, it seems, was able to see the evil playing out in the new church by Pastor Chambliss. And when an elderly woman dies from snakebite and it appears the church covers up her death, Addie takes it upon herself to remove the children from the church. She says on more than one occasion that looking into the eyes of Chambliss is looking at pure evil. Her words come to fruition.
Jess Hall is the 9-year-old brother of Stump (the boy who is killed). He believes actions he takes with his best friend ultimately result in his beloved brother’s death. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, he is correct. Watching the story play out through a 9-year-old’s eyes was fascinating. In particular, watching the development of relationships with his parents and with his grandfather make up the thrust of the story.
Finally, Sheriff Clem Barefield is called upon to investigate the boy’s death. Sheriff Barefield’s own son died as a result of negligent actions by Jess and Stump’s grandfather many years before. Barefield must put aside his feelings about Jimmy Hall (the grandfather) to fairly investigate the boy’s death.
The novel is really about relationships, and about the face of pure, unadulterated evil. The conclusion is imminently uncomfortable, but oddly satisfying. Cash’s writing (it is a debut novel) is extraordinary. Cash offers no relief from the dark story, yet that same story is very compelling. It would be a great novel for a book club discussion.
I recommend the book.