Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home, is set in North Carolina where a small storefront church with newspaper blocking its windows becomes the scene of a tragic death.
When nine-year-old Jess Hall decides to spy through a crack in the church window, he witnesses an alarming scene: his autistic brother, widely known as Stump, is being subjected to what looks like a fairly brutal assault by the mysterious pastor, Carson Chambliss. Unable to bear it any longer, Jess cries out for his mother who is inside, wrestling with those laying their hands on her son. Unfortunately, this cry is mistakenly thought to have come from the mute Stump and Jess’s fear of telling his mother the truth about what really happened that day has disastrous consequences.
Above anything else, the book is a gripping story about the power secrets and religion have, especially when they involve children. Wiley Cash is great at building a sense of atmosphere and you can totally understand why young Jess, in the face of the terrifying pastor’s wrath and his mother’s bitter despair, would shy away from telling the truth.
Carson Chambliss, even to an adult like me, is a pretty creepy bogeyman. Disfigured with burns from a mysterious accident, he keeps crates of hissing, poisonous snakes for use in his unwholesome church services – and opposing him holds the promise of severe reprisals.
The story of A Land More Kind than Home is told in three distinct voices: that of Jess Hall, that of local sheriff Clem Barefield, and that of local midwife and all-round spirited battle-axe Adelaide Lyle. One of the best things about Cash’s book is that he gives a real sense of who his characters are – everything is written that that southern way of speaking that brings the dusty, hot mountain town and its inhabitants to life. You can almost hear the crickets singing and feel the sticky air. I actually thought the book would make a great film or even a play – there’s a real cinematic quality to the prose.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Jess Hall, since what he sees that day at the church is only to be the beginning of his woes. Between crises of faith, adult heartbreak and the sort of scandal that can tear a small community to pieces, Jess slips through the cracks, unnoticed by most – even by those who should be protecting him.
Very different to the lost voice of Jess, Adelaide Lyle is the book’s prophet. She takes a stand against Carson Chambliss long before anyone else sees fit to cross him and I found myself really cheering for her and her feats of seemingly super-human strength and compassion, especially when those who are younger and stronger fail, even when what’s at stake belongs to them.
The third and final voice, however, was my favourite – and the author’s too, according to his note in the back of the book. Clem Barefield is a kind-hearted, practical sheriff, who has never been taken in by the charismatic Chambliss. He is the non-spiritual voice of the book, which I suppose is partly why I liked him. In an atmosphere of religious hysteria and constrictive values, the sheriff seems the most keenly aware of the human cost in all the chaos going on around him. Like Adelaide Lyle, he always tries to act in the best interests of the community, but, like Jess, he is haunted by his own mistakes. He is the antithesis of Carson Chambliss – rational, honest and aware that he is a man, and an imperfect man at that, rather than a god. When you see the destruction that Chambliss wreaks, and the misery he brings about with his delusions of grandeur, you think that humility must indeed be the way to go. That’s what I took from this gripping, tragic tale at any rate.