I was a little anxious about how the Friends would receive this book—first, because I was the one who nominated it, and second, because it contains disturbing content. But when I read it last fall—at the recommendation of my friend Martha Bryant—I found it...let’s say somewhere between engaging and enthralling, leaning heavily toward enthralling. In his debut novel, Cash authentically captures the essence of the South without making all the characters appear to have been inbred (although, the reader may have suspicions about a few), and through the voices of three separate narrators, he tells a haunting and compelling story.
Be warned, this story is not for the squeamish. There are scenes of brutality and blood. And, because the plot revolves around the activities of a “charismatic,” snake-handling preacher, there are some beyond creepy scenes. For these reasons, a couple of Friends were not fans of the work. But most found it intriguing and thought-provoking. And it generated interesting discussion, something I consider a hallmark of a good book.
Among the novel’s strengths:
1) A clear, well-defined villain. One of the tenets of literature is that in order to be believable, characters should be neither all good nor all bad. I don’t necessarily buy into that theory. I found Carson Chambliss, the preacher in this story, to be evil incarnate and still very convincing.
2) A balanced approach in dealing with religion/Christianity. When I started reading it, my immediate reaction to A Land More Kind Than Home was “Here we go...another story about stereotypical southerners, who cling to their guns [or in this case, snakes] and their religion.” But I didn’t have to read long, before I realized Cash wasn’t following this pattern. He balances the evil of his preacher with the goodness and sacrificial love of Addie Lyle, who has spent her life helping people and trying to save the children of Chambliss’s church from his controlling, deadly grip.
3) Redemption and hope. To be worthy of my reading time, a story must offer these two elements. I don’t insist on a rosy ending—and believe me, this novel doesn’t have one—but I do want to finish a book with expectations that people can survive and persevere under trying circumstances, that people can experience a positive change of heart, and that ultimately good can triumph over evil. A Land More Kind Than Home fulfills these expectations.
4) Literary merit. In the highly unlikely event Cash should ever read this post, I hope he doesn’t say, “Huh? Where’d she come up with that?” And maybe it’s too much of my inner English teacher coming out, but I found the archetypes—among them, Chambliss, the serpent who beguiles and destroys; Christopher, the innocent, whose death ultimately saves others—skillfully woven into a modern tale of good versus evil. Along with those are mesmerizing imagery and engrossing characters.
If there is a negative to this book, it is the pacing. At times, the story seems to drag with unnecessary details, especially when nine-year-old Jess narrates. Then again, those details are authentic to the perspective of a young boy and perhaps necessary. And the story’s strengths all but cancel out this minor flaw.
So, I guess you can tell I liked this book. Really liked it. I look forward to more work from this gifted southern writer. Your thoughts?