Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash has produced a stunning debut novel set in rural Appalachia in the mid 1980's. Telling the story from three different points of view (9 year old Jess Hall, 60 year old  Sheriff Clem Barefield, and 81 year old Adelaide Lyle, midwife and Sunday School teacher) Cash skillfully presents a picture of the power of evil disguised as religion, and the harm caused by alcoholism, secret-keeping, and lack of understanding at all levels of the town.

Each narrator tells different aspects and events of the lives inhabitants of the town, and each brings us closer to the chilling ending, while at the same time giving us back-fill about themselves and the community.  Jess tells us about his older brother Christopher (called "Stump") who is autistic.  Stump's never spoken a word, but he and Jess are able to communicate without difficulty.  In the course of normal boyhood games, they spy on the happenings inside the community's fundamentalist Pentecostal church, led by Pastor Carson Chambliss (the villain every reader will love to hate). Unable to process what they have witnessed or ask adults for an explanation for fear of being punished for snooping, they stumble along toward the inevitable.

Preacher Chambliss believes in a form of religion based on an interpretation of scripture that posits a God who will protect believers from evil--in this case evil in the form of bags of rattlesnakes--and that those who expose themselves to such evil, e.g., plunge their arms into sacks full of snakes, can be cured of the maladies caused by their sins by trusting in God.

Adelaide Lyle, increasingly convinced that the preacher is up to no good, removes her Sunday school students from the church services rather than have these children she has delivered brought into contact with these bizarre rituals.

The boys' mother has bought into the preacher's promises of God's restorative powers and wants to have Pastor Chambliss "cure" Christopher of his speechlessness.  Her motherly love and her misguided sense of faith engenders a huge rift between the boys' parents, destroying her marriage, and driving her more and more to the solace offered by the preacher, thereby adding more tension to the story.

From the beginning, I had a sense of doom, despair, and utter devastation waiting at the end, but could not put the book down.  I even got the audio version--admirably read by Mark Bramhall, Lorna Raver and Nick Sullivan-- so I could continue with the story even when I couldn't sit with a book.

I sometimes needed to remind myself that 9 year old Jess was the younger brother, although never did Cash drop out of character and make him seem older than he was.  It was simply the fact that without the ability to process what Stump was experiencing and thinking, and the fact that Jess had been assigned the duty of watching after his brother, that he came to be seen as the more mature.  Either way, these two boys were surrounded by adults who were not helping these young boys make sense of their world and were therefore unable to protect them.

The Sheriff, one of the sharper knives in the drawer, at least pays attention to his sense of unease and begins to investigate the Pastor, but is not able to put the brakes on the happenings before it's too late.  The same holds true for Adelaide:  while she can see what may be coming, she simply cannot overcome years of fear and ignorance to break down the prejudices and false ideas of the community.  She feels a responsibility for the children, she tries as best as she knows how to shield them, but in this case the power of evil, the overwhelming reliance on a religious fanatic (and quack) is too much for her.

Wiley Cash grew up in the South.  Those roots shine through in his gorgeous portrayal of the customs, the people, and the geography.   His sense of place is one of the best I've seen in years.  His ability to write in three distinct voices and give each of them a unique perspective is uncanny, and one of the strengths of this work.  I don't want to say more about the plot to avoid spoilers.  This is a book that will stay with me for a long time, and one which I will read again.  It will be an outstanding book for a reading discussion group.

Many thanks to William Morrow for making it available to me as a member of the panel for the Maine Readers Choice Award.

Title: A Land More Kind than Home
Author: Wiley Cash
Publisher: William Morrow (2012), 330 pages
Genre: Southern fiction
Subject : Religious fanaticism, sibling relations, secret keeping
Setting: Appalachian North Carolina
Source: Copy received from the publisher for participation Maine Reader Choice Award Panel
Why did I read this book now? It was on the shortlist for the program.


  1. I heard about this book in a similar way, it was one of the choices for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, but was not one that I reviewed. Now I really wish it had been! I'm going to have to grab a copy on my own - I love this style of novel. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. I do want to read this as it sounds great. I borrowed the audio, but think it is just one that I'd rather read after beginning the first disc.

    1. Diane, I read this both in audio and in print,and I think that you'd do better at least reading the first couple sections in least that way you'll get a sense of the three narrators. Then when you do listen, you'll have them cemented in your brain. The audio performances of the three are excellent and I think they really added to my enjoyment of the book. Whichever way you go, I think you'll find it a very enriching read.


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