Friday, 14 September 2012


One of the first books I've read this year kind of surprised me, even though it wasn't light reading. Great début by Wiley Cash.

Hope in faith
When those we trust fail us

first published in The Star, 14 September 2012

I remember being aghast at stories of child abuse at the hands of religious figures. So it's no surprise that I found the premise of Wiley Cash's debut novel compelling: what happens when religious figures fail to live up to their ideals?

The novel was inspired by the tragic story of an autistic African American boy who'd been smothered during a healing service in Chicago in the United States. "I was bothered that a group of people, including the boy's mother, could stand by while something like that took place," said Cash in an interview.

A Land More Kind Than Home takes place in a small North Carolinian town populated by generally God-fearing townsfolk. Some of them, however, fear something else, too.

Elderly midwife Adelaide Lyle is haunted by the death and subsequent cover-up of the time a churchgoer dies during a snake-handling ritual presided over by the church's newest pastor, Carson Chambliss. The incident prompts her to take the children out of the church.

Despite her efforts, young Jess Hall's autistic older brother, Christopher, lovingly nicknamed "Stump" by his father, becomes the church's next victim as his mother stands by and does nothing. As the case unravels, this story of family, faith and secrets unfolds through the perspectives of three people.

There's Lyle who, as a young girl, survived what sounds like the 1918-19 global Spanish flu outbreak and helped bury a long-deceased relative. This fortitude helps her bear the secrets she has to hide but the weight would eventually prove too much. Too old to actively resist Chambliss's corruption of the church, she mostly watches from the sidelines.

Jess Hall, meanwhile, has to deal with his brother's death, which he feels somehow responsible for. The return of his grandfather Jimmy doesn't help. Instead, Jess retreats into the safety and comfort of memories of him and his brother, despite the adults' efforts to help him cope.

And we have Sheriff Clem Barefield, a survivor of his own family tragedy who has the unenviable task of battling small-town reticence and the church's code of silence to solve Stump's case. There's also a bit of unfinished business between him and Jimmy Hall.

Cash wanted to write the story of the failed Chicago faith healing, but he wasn't familiar with the city or the community. So the North Carolinian set the story in Madison County in his home state. "Once I did that, the story came alive; it became real."

And it did. Cash has done his research well, judging from how one is deeply immersed in the atmosphere of the town, with the sweet aroma from drying tobacco leaves at the Halls' farm and the "ain'ts" and double negatives in the locals' speech. In this day and age, such a stereotypical portrayal of a small American town may be frowned upon, even as one believes that such places still exist in that country, rotary dial phones and all.

We are shown how the decay of religion in a slice of the American heartland can affect its people. We feel the characters' pain, caused by alcoholism, domestic abuse and betrayal by those they trusted, as well as the plight of the lost searching for meaning or something to fill the void in their hearts.

We seethe at the seemingly aloof wickedness of those who prey upon the insecure and desperate to achieve power and influence. We are crushed, slowly, as we watch a family come apart. Even before the conclusion of this well-written novel, the slimy preacher will leave one more scar upon the lives of the protagonists.

Yet, the novel offers hope. Lyle still believes the church is the town's pivotal institution and that it will again be the beacon and safe haven it's meant to be.

"The living church is made of people," she says, "and it can grow sick and break just like people can, and sometimes churches can die just like people die. ... A church can be healed, and it can be saved like people can be saved."

We somehow find comfort in these words, even as we cringe at the on-air antics of today's Carson Chamblisses. And we hope that our religious institutions will eventually become a place more like home where those we trust with our lives – and souls – will never let us down.

A Land More Kind Than Home
Wiley Cash
Doubleday (2012)
306 pages
ISBN: 978-0-857-52070-8


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