Wiley Cash got a lot of love for his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and rightly so. Told from alternating first-person points of view, A Land More Kind Than Home is the story of faith and religion gone awry. Adelaide Lyle is the town midwife, and she opens the story by explaining why she left the church that was home and family to her for decades in the tiny western North Carolina town where she lives. After another congregant in the church is killed during some….er, questionable worship practices (and the death covered up by the Reverend Chambliss and Adelaide’s fellow congregants), Adelaide decides she must shield the congregation’s children from things that are happening inside the church. She comes to an uneasy agreement with Reverend Chambliss that she will care for the children while the adults worship, an arrangement that seems to work until the day that Julie Hall decides to take her autistic son to the church.
The story’s other narrators are Jess, a nine-year old boy whose mother is one of the church’s congregants, and the Sheriff Clem Barefield. Through Jessie, we learn exactly what happens to his brother inside the church that later leads to his death. Sheriff Barefield rounds out the story by introducing more of the Hall family and its connection to a tragedy in his own family decades earlier.
The story is not a wholly original one, in that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen to Jess’s brother (nicknamed Stump) in that backwoods evangelical country church. But to Cash’s credit, he expertly paces the events surrounding what happens to Stump and Jess, weaving in the Sheriff’s backstory in way that shows us the ties that bind and those that have been torn. In addition, the ending is something of a surprise in terms of choices some of the characters make.
Cash easily could have been much more heavy-handed with all the religious material, but he does a good job of showing how good people can be caught up by a more powerful personality, especially when that personality is promising them everlasting salvation. Reverend Chambliss would have been right at home as a character in HBO’s True Detective, but that’s less because he’s a stereotype than because he’s a simple fact in some parts of the South. Not long after I finished Cash’s book, a news story broke about a preacher in Kentucky killed as a result of snake-handling.
Cash also does a good job moving between characters. In particular, the reader understands Jess’s distress and confusion as he tries to manage what he sees happening to his family due to his mother’s devotion to the church even after Stump’s death.
I hope it doesn’t seem that I am damning this book with faint praise by giving it three out of five stars. It is a solid, well-written debut, one that makes me eager to read Cash’s latest, This Dark Road to Mercy. I’m giving it three stars primarily because the story is not wholly original, and neither are the characters. The author has some characters make interesting choices at the end, but that doesn’t make the book ground-breaking in any way. That said, this novel is definitely worth reading, and Cash will be a writer to watch.
And on the three-star rating: Lately I feel I’ve been grading on a curve. I’ve been giving solid, well-written books four or sometimes even five stars. But some of those books weren’t great, and it occurred to me one day that there is absolutely nothing wrong with three stars. Lately, I think that three stars have generally come to mean, “Meh, it was okay.” To me, three stars means that author got most things right: the writing, the pacing, the character development, the story. But I’ve decided to save those fourth and fifth stars for books that sweep me away, that show me something wholly original, that make me marvel and wonder at the effort–or effortlessness–of the writing.
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