Debut novels shouldn’t be this good. They just shouldn’t.
In his first novel, Wiley Cash draws on his rural North Carolina upbringing to weave a story both touching and tragic. Using three very different voices – a devout spinster in her 80s, a young boy in a struggling family, and a rural county sheriff who shoulders his own burdens – Cash writes a story not so much about a single tragic moment, but about how small actions and decisions made both deliberately and in innocence can bind together and affect an entire community.
Nine year old Jess Hall lives with his parents and older brother on his family’s small tobacco farm near Asheville on the French Broad River in Madison County. A typical boy, Jess likes playing in the nearby creek with his brother, and he dreams of someday owning a bb gun. He gets into mischief, especially with his best friend Joe Bill, but isn’t a bad boy. While his mother attends church services at the evangelical River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, he and the other congregant children stay with Miss Adelaide Lyle, an old lady who has watched over the children as long as Jess can remember.
The storefront church is already mysterious, with old yellowed newspapers covering the windows so no one can see what’s going on inside, but with music and singing and hollering bleeding out of it, and its charismatic pastor Chambliss with the fire-wizened right arm. But Miss Lyle will not allow “her” children to be in the church during services, making it a place of wonder and dread in their young imaginations.
Jess’s older brother, whose name is Christopher but is called Stump by everyone except his mother and Miss Lyle, is different from the other kids. Stump is mute, and autistic. He hears fine but has never said a word in his life, just occasional grunts when he wants something, or he might hum to himself. Still, he is pleasant and peaceful enough, and in his family he is loved with his mother believing that his being “touched” is a gift from God. And he always has Jess looking out for him.
But boys being boys, their curiosity can put them at the wrong place at the wrong time, and not even the bond between brothers can protect when innocence intersects with adult ambition.
One day after returning home from school, the boys are given permission by their mother to go down to the creek and find salamanders for their room – an unexpected boon. But this day they can’t find any of the elusive little critters and although they were trying to be careful, their pants and Stump’s shoes get soaked in the muddy water. Returning home, they decide to clean up at the rain barrel outside their parent’s room to keep from being yelled at for tracking mud inside, but once they turn off the spigot, they hear strange noises coming from within the house. Jess wants to let it go, but Stump’s curiosity is roused and he climbs on top of the rain barrel to peer into the bedroom. Not meant to be a stepstool, the rain barrel topples over, breaking the spigot off and landing Stump on his back while Jess scampers into the bushes to keep from being caught. Moments later, someone comes out of the house to check on the noise, but it’s not Mama or Daddy, but a shirtless Pastor Chambliss.
Two days later, Stump is summoned from the children’s group on Sunday morning – the congregation has decided it is his time to join the grownups in the church so they can attempt a healing. Despite his reluctance and Jess’s unease at being separated from his brother, the older boy is led away. But Jess and Joe Bill conspire to sneak away from Miss Lyle’s care and spy on the goings on in the church from a back window where the boards between the windowsill and the ancient air conditioner have warped, allowing for just a peek’s worth of vision from behind the sanctuary. What Jess sees there, and the events that follow, will take an already fraying family and pull it apart with repercussions that will draw lines among the faithful, open old wounds that still fester, and change lives with both tragedy and redemption.
Even with this compelling story line, the real strength of Wiley Cash’s novel is the voice in which he tells it. A Land More Kind Than Home is not a tale told straight on, but instead is full of memories and reminiscences that unfold like unconscious thought, and details that may not speak directly to the plot but create an indelible sense of place and time. The events on which the novel turn are often initiated in unremarkable ways, but swell to significance until they are unable to be turned aside even by those who may have a foreboding of what may be at stake. The result is a tale that does not rely on tension but concern to hold our attention, that does not play to sentimentality but to the achingly familiar that lies close to the heart in all of us.
“Let me see your hand,” I said. Stump put his hand behind his back again and stood there looking toward the river like he couldn’t hear me. “Stump,” I said, “let me see what you’ve got.” He finally opened his hand, and when he did I saw that he’d picked up a little piece of quartz that he must’ve found while we were down at the river skipping rocks with Joe Bill. He was always doing that, picking up shiny rocks and keeping them in his pockets until we got home. We had a whole shelf in our room where we kept the rocks we collected. We even had us a big purple quartz rock about the size of a baseball that Daddy had found when he was turning his tobacco rows. I held out my hand to Stump. “I’ll keep that for you,” I said. “I won’t let nothing happen to it. I promise.” He dropped the quartz into my hand and I slid it into the back pocket of my blue jeans. Then me and Joe Bill just stood there and watched Stump and Mr. Thompson walk across the road towards the church.
The three voices that Cash uses to tell his story weave in and around each other, allowing for perspective without obvious exposition, along with pulling us in to how each of these people grasp the situation through their own experiences and tragedies. Jess, with his naïve witness which holds little judgment is played against Sheriff Clem Barefield’s struggle to stay impartial even as his emotions run as strongly as they are buried deep, and Adelaide Lyle threads the entire story together with her insight and remembrances of the community in which she has lived her entire life. It’s a masterful work from an emerging author who treats his characters with respect and yet does not spare them from their failings.
~ Sharon Browning