This beautifully written first novel heralds the arrival of a major talent. Author Wiley Cash tells "A Land More Kind Than Home" through the voices of three residents of a small North Carolina mountain town near Asheville that Cash calls Marshall. They are an elderly spinster who has seen a lot of life and might be called the town's moral conscience; an unusually perceptive 9-year-old boy; and the sheriff, Clem Barefield, a man from Henderson who has only lived there for 25 years and knows "most folks still consider you an outsider just because you weren't born here and raised up knowing everyone's business."
The first voice, and the last, is that of Adelaide Lyle. A midwife who has always lived in Marshall, she had been a member of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs for 50 years. She had resigned 10 years before when the new preacher, Carson Chambliss, caused the death of a member in a snake-handling ceremony. He had preached that "God had sent his angels ... to carry her home to glory. We know God brings only the worthy home."
His sermon convinced most of the congregation that her death was a glorious victory, but not Adelaide. She had "delivered just about every child that stepped foot inside this church," and was determined that it was no longer a safe place for children. By taking all the children from the church and teaching them in her home, she turned Chambliss into an instant enemy.
Then a little boy dies during a "healing ceremony" in the church. He is the mute brother of Jess Hall, the small boy who takes up the narrative. Jess is a witness to the events that lead to his brother's death, but does not fully understand them, although the reader does. His mother is the beautiful and innocent Julie, who truly believes the minister can cure her mute son's inability to speak. When the boy dies, her husband blames her. Their split, and the bereaved mother's obsession with Pastor Chambliss, set the stage for the final tragedy.
This part is told mostly by Sheriff Barefield, who knows and understands the people involved but is helpless to control the forces that have been unleashed. Jess' father blames Chambliss for his son's death and the breakup of his family, and Chambliss is just as determined to fight back. The conflict builds slowly but inevitably toward the final climax.
Cash, who comes from western North Carolina but now teaches at Bethany College in West Virginia, has chosen his title well. It comes from Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again": "Death is to leave the earth you know ... to find a land more kind than home." While Cash is considerably less wordy, he shares a good deal of the great North Carolina novelist's gift for description and character, and deep understanding of the people and region he writes about. He evokes the wild beauty of that country, and writes with sympathy and compassion of the people who live there.
He wisely gives Adelaide the last word: "This is a good place now," she says, "without no snake boxes, no noisy rattles kicking up from places you can't see ... we still don't have a full-time pastor. The Israelites had Moses ... we're still waiting on ours. But when God's chosen people called out 'Save us, Lord!' they were saved ... I think the good Lord has it in his plan to save us too."
These are flawed but good people, and I think you'll be glad you spent some time with them. I know I'll be glad to see what this gifted author does next.