As most of you know, I am a fierce fan of good Southern fiction. I have stumbled onto a few new names in the genre this year, including Brenda Sutton Rose and Jonathan Odell, and today I add to that list Wiley Cash.
When I read the synopsis of his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, it looked interesting. Then I noticed that it was a New York Times bestseller. But what made me buy it was the blurb by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s, To Kill A Mockingbird.” Funny what sucks a person in. Simply the name ‘Harper Lee’ or mention of her classic novel on the cover of a book seems to ensure a brilliant work of fiction.
As I mentioned, A Land More Kind Than Home is Wiley Cash’s debut novel. In it, he puts a Gothic spin on a story set in rural North Carolina, an area filled with people who, in many ways, are a few decades behind much of the country. The story is told through several first person POVs bringing us ever-close to their life, story, and emotions, with secondary characters who feel just as authentic. There is a young boy, Jess, who suffers and struggles through tragedy and loss seemingly too great for his years, a strong, elderly woman who is dissatisfied with the cult-like changes within her church brought about by a new pastor, and an ex-con of a pastor who has his own way of delivering God’s word as he interprets it.
I don’t want to offer any spoilers so I won’t go too deeply into the story, but it is absorbing, well-written, and rich in imagery. I believe it’s set in 1986 (and if it’s not, I’m sure someone will correct me 🙂 ) yet to me, the story had a much earlier feel to it. I mention this because Cash effectively presented a fairly modern story, but was able to convey the town’s unsophisticated ways without coming out and calling it backward, (showing, not telling).
1. When Jess and Joe Bill were playing during the church service, I got a sense of Mayberry RFD. No electronic devices to amuse them, they didn’t hang out at the mall, no gangs, et cetera. Two boys being boys, playing outside, and what young boy isn’t a bit mischievous (Peeking in the church windows during a service they weren’t allowed to attend.)
2. The years-old, yellowed newspaper taped to the inside of the church windows. That detail alone told me that there was a deeper significance to that church than what one would expect or what met the eye. For me, that one detail set the stage for the dark side of worship and immediately made the church the focal point of the story.
3. The discretion used by the local law enforcement was not protocol for most areas of that time period. When a citizen beats the holy-loving out of two men who appear to pay their condolences (sort of), the deputy sheriff turned the other cheek. The lack of adherence to the letter of the law spoke of a older justice system, a good ole boys club.
I enjoyed the book on many levels, but my favorite part was the actual writing. There are two ways to write narrative and exposition. One is to drone on and on to the point where readers skim through it or skip it entirely in the search of something worthwhile to keep them turning pages. The other is to use it to bring the story to life. Details without overload. It’s in this area that a writer creates art. Knowing which details to use, which to leave out. Knowing where to place them so that they don’t feel like an info-dump and break the flow of the story or aren’t used as filler to bridge the gaps between action or scenes. Also important is knowing when to say nothing and leave it to the reader’s imagination. Cash’s prose is fresh and his metaphors and turns-of-phrase original, fitting to the scene and period.
The writing was pitch perfect. The flow was comfortable, never leaving the reader in the dust because he got ahead of himself. His characters were believable enough that I didn’t just read through their tragedies, I felt what they felt. Cash teaches us how quickly and quietly the winds of change sneak up on us and how split second decisions leave their life-altering mark.
In the end, one boy and two men are left dead, two men are left broken, and one long-broken man is given a second chance. It’s a book about life and loss, belief and doubt, hurt and forgiveness, morals and contradiction.
A Land More Kind Than Home – One of the best debut novels on the market and one I will visit again.