Step carefully in 'A Land More Kind Than Home'
“A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash. William Morrow. 320 pp. $24.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — The three narrators of “A Land More Kind Than Home” certainly need to find such a place to soothe their wounded hearts and souls.
Wiley Cash’s debut novel tells a powerful story of lust, envy, greed and many of the other seven deadly sins, featuring a delusional pastor, a midwife who has seen too much, a 9-year-old innocent and a sheriff with grief piled up in his heart.
When a story starts out with snake handling and poison drinking, there’s bound to be death ahead, no matter what the Bible says. When death is a regular visitor to a country church, it doesn’t take long for the secrets to make their way out of that dark building and into the world.
Adelaide Lyle bears the first secret in silence. The best the aging midwife can do is see to it that no children are allowed in that church during services.
“If having Molly Jameson die right in front of that church didn’t convince Carson Chambliss to stop his carrying on, who’s to say that somebody setting themselves on fire and burning down the church would change his mind? There wasn’t no amount of strychnine that could’ve got him to stop; wasn’t no kind of snake that man wouldn’t pick up and pass around.”
But despite Miss Addie’s best efforts, another person does die inside that cinderblock building with the covered-up windows, and this time it’s a child, and it sets a series of powerful forces in motion.
Grief can turn people strong, or make them as angry as they’ve ever been. The grief in this North Carolina mountain community of Marshall builds like the storm that breaks as the grieving and the guilty come together.
Cash uses three first-person narrators, starting with Addie, then switching to young Jess Hall, the 9-year-old. When danger mounts, he uses the sheriff, Clem Barefield, to offer some relief.
Addie’s already been threatened by the evil pastor; Jess is in grave danger that his family will be destroyed, and it is, with one shocking event after another.
Addie sees so much and says so little, living in fear of a second encounter with Chambliss and his box of snakes. The sheriff picks up on that but doesn’t yet understand why.
Jess runs around like any 9-year-old would, playing with his older brother, hanging out by the river with his friend, Joe Bill.
Cash cleverly builds tension with single incidents — Jess’ brother climbing on the rain barrel to see who is in the bedroom with his mother. Jess peeping around an air conditioner to look inside the church. Jess’ father, Ben Hall, finding a rattler in the barn; Jess’ mother, Julie, taking his older brother to church.
Jess is the only one innocent in this novel, and at times he seems a little too wise for a third-grader. He sees a lot and hears even more, “… and I heard him pick up the bottle off the counter and unscrew the lid and then I heard him sit back down.”
What he hears later that night will never leave him, as sons die at the hands of fathers who never wanted to hurt anyone.
Cash does an excellent job of building tension, and of making the impetus for all this damage a terrifying figure, though little known by the readers.
Using description and sparse dialogue, Pastor Chambliss comes across as the devil on earth, not the man of God, even Messiah, that he claims to be. He has black hair buzzed short, and always wears long-sleeve shirts, with one sleeve rolled up; the other one covers a hideous burn that he says happened because he was “on fire for the Lord.”
Sheriff Barefield finds out otherwise, once he’s in the investigation. He finds out Pastor Chambliss has a history that includes cooking methamphetamine. Maybe that’s why God set him on fire.
That right hand is described by Addie and Jess, as a terrifying thing to behold, the skin mottled and cold, bright red and pink.
The imagery continues, almost with a heavy hand, as Barefield pays a visit to the pastor, who’s working in a barn, “…I turned my head to the right, and when I did I saw what must’ve been hundreds of molted snake skins tacked to one whole wall of the barn, and I realized that the sound I’d heard earlier was actually the wind whipping through the slats in the walls and rustling those skins.”
Barefield lets Chambliss know what he knows and makes it clear he doesn’t think the man has changed. “But like I said, I can see how you’d like those snakes. They shed skin, men shed skin. Skin grows back, sometimes it gets grafted on.”
In the meantime, Ben Hall’s father returns, the drunkard who Barefield blames for his own son’s death; Julie abandons Jess when her older son dies; Ben starts drinking; everyone is shedding skins, except for Jess and Addie, the past and the hope for the future.
When it all plays out, it’s like an armageddon, blood shed everywhere, justice served and justice blinded. Someone dies who probably doesn’t deserve it; someone is maimed in a way to match the dark pastor.
What does the innocent have left? An old man who has redemption forced on him, an old lady who tried to save the children, a sheriff burned out by all the pain.
Cash follows the Southern Gothic line, and at times his writing is reminiscent of Salisbury’s John Hart — they have this way of creating a voice for children that is incredibly memorable, provocative, evocative.
“A Land More Kind than Home” is a great summer read, fast-paced and page-turning. Cash leaves you with unsettling questions about faith and false witness.
Leave it to wise Addie to wrap it all up in the end. “I think the good Lord has it in His plan to save us too.”
The Summer Reading Challenge continues Thursday at 7 p.m. with a talk about “A Land More Kind Than Home” at Trinity Oaks Retirement Community, 728 Klumac Road. Dr. Forrest Anderson of Catawba College will lead the discussion. Cash may be able to join the group via Skype.
The final event of the challenge will be Sept. 27 with an on-stage interview of Salisbury novelist Jenny Hubbard.