From the very first chapter I knew this was going to be a powerful and emotionally-draining story.
The book, set deep in Appalachian North Carolina in 1986, is narrated by three characters: 81-year-old Adelaide Lyle, 9-year-old Jess Hall, and the 60-year-old sheriff, Clem Barefield. The focus of all of their “testimonies” is the town’s only pastor, Carson Chambliss, and his “River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following.”
The particular signs this pastor has his congregation following come from the Gospel of Mark 16:17-18:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Pastor Chambliss insists on a literal translation of this passage, and challenges his congregants with the many snakes he brings in crates for every service.
[The character of Chambliss is based on actual faith-healers, generally of the Pentecostal faith, and primarily operating in Appalachia, who have also established “Signs” churches, and who may require snake handling or poison-drinking as evidence of salvation. This practice has led to abuse in real-life as well as in fiction; in 1992, for example, such a pastor in Alabama – Glenn Summerford – was convicted for forcing his no-longer-desired wife to keep her hand inside a rattlesnake cage until she was repeatedly bitten. She actually survived, but he got 99 years in prison. In a bizarre twist to the story, the New York Times reporter who was covering the story was swept away by the spiritual ecstasy of the religion he was investigating, and converted! And there’s more! In 1998, Glenn Summerford’s cousin, Rev. John Wayne Brown, Jr., died while handling a four-foot timber rattlesnake during a sermon. His wife had died of a snake bite three years earlier!
Thomas Burton in Serpent and The Spirit: Glenn Summerford’s Story tells the story of Summerford and his ministry via a collection of first-person narratives. A Land More Kind Than Home is in many ways a fictional (and more tightly focused) version of this story.]
Wiley Cash’s choice of narrators adds dramatic depth by interweaving their stories with that of Chambliss. We learn of a marriage that has suffered from the birth of a disabled child; the lifelong pain of dissension between fathers and sons; the repercussions of forgiveness or its lack; how a young child might interpret the very adult things going on around him; and the way faith can be wielded as a weapon. All of the narrators and the others in their lives have suffered pain in need of spiritual healing, but Chambliss is the only game in town. And as Sheriff Barefield points out to Chambliss, “You ain’t Christ!”
Nevertheless, Pastor Chambliss commands a mighty power over the town’s residents through his use (and abuse) of the church. One can’t help but conclude that some of the tragedy that results is not even the worst or meanest thing that could have happened. As Cash writes in the epigraph, quoting Tomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again:
“Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:
‘[Death is] to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home….”
Discussion: Cash’s ability to imagine the thinking of the three such radically different individuals who serve as his narrators is impressive, and his atmospheric evocation of Appalachia even more so. And although the book may have been inspired by real events, Cash adds powerful dramatic elements to enhance and deepen the story.
Additionally, this is one of the few instances I can think of in which a totally evil character, with no nuance whatsoever, seems so realistic I could hardly bear not seeking him out and doing away with him!
Evaluation: This striking novel is not easy to forget. The writing is exceptional, and the characters well-drawn. Highly recommended!
Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012