A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash, William Morrow, 2012, 325 pp
Wiley Cash's first novel is not great but it is really good. It evoked a wide-ranging and deep discussion at the reading group for which I read it. I acquired my copy as an ebook from my library. I like getting to borrow an ebook but it vanishes on the day it is due. Now it is three weeks later and I took no notes so must rely on my memory to write about it.
In a small North Carolina town tucked into the mountains, nine-year-old Jess lives with his parents and his autistic brother Stump. They have a unique relationship because Stump does not talk. Dad grows tobacco and Mom goes to her Pentecostal church. She is looking for answers because of Stump.
Believe it or not, these people are so cut off and backward compared to modern life that they don't know anything about autism. Some of them fall for a preacher who has them handling snakes and practicing the laying on of hands for curing illness or casting out demons. All I will say is that something very bad happens to Stump in that church.
I know this stuff goes on in the American South. A few years ago I read Robert Hellenga's Snakewoman of Little Egypt, a better book by the way, and did some research on Pentecostal churches. It seems that oftentimes these churches that go in for snake handling and all the other strange practices are led by preachers who have crossed over into a psychopathic zone and wield some freaky power over their congregations. Such is the case in this novel.
I like dark southern tales. This one was marketed as a literary thriller, it won the British Crime Writers Association Dagger Award for a first book, and is in the coming-of-age genre as well. All quite ambitious and successful.
What worked for me were the characters and the plotting. Jess, his grandfather, Adelaide Lyle (who serves as the town's midwife and is the true healer there) are all so well drawn, you feel you could touch them. The evil preacher, the mom and actually every character just jump off the page in equal measures of description, dialogue, and action.
It is the excellent writing that make the book as good as it is. Underlying that is a kind of religious tone about faith and redemption. I don't doubt the author's awareness or belief or whatever it is he has grappled with but his execution just made me a little squirmy. It is not that I don't like novels with religion in them, but as in writing about sex, it has to be done well.
(A Land More Kind Than Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)