Reviewed by Mary Ickes
With Carson Chambliss, his novel’s antagonist, Mr. Cash established a new standard by which writers, for years to come, will measure their religious villains. Even with the perspective of three disparate narrators, the depth of Chambliss’ deviltry defies comprehension.
Adelaide Lyle (age 81), the first narrator, a trusted town elder, and a devout Christian, has attended the French Broad Church of Christ since childhood. After the pastor’s death, a decade before the story opens, Chambliss moved the church to a former general store outside of Marshall, North Carolina, covered the windows with newspapers, changed the name to River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, and painted beneath the road sign: Mark 16:17-18. (The passage reads in part … “In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them” …)
Convinced by Chambliss “to challenge the will of God,” sensible people Adelaide has known all her life drink strychnine, scorch their faces with fire, and embrace poisonous snakes while shrieking in tongues and writhing on the floor. Though terrified of Chambliss, Adelaide gives notice that she is leaving his church and taking the children with her.
Infuriated by her defiance, he rants until Adelaide quietly reminds him that the children will naturally talk about his services, especially the fate of Molly Jameson the previous Sunday. As the story opens, Chambliss still despises Adelaide and she quakes at the mere thought of him, but she has kept the children safe.
Jess Hall (age 9) is the second narrator and the brother of autistic and mute Stump (age 13). Adelaide writes that, from a young age, Jess has questioned incessantly, especially about religion, and expected substantial answers. Taking to heart his mother’s advice that he must be the older brother, Jess loves, protects, and respects Stump who reciprocates through touching gestures. A hoarder, Stump hides his treasures in their room, but the rocks that he and Jess collect he sets on the shelf built by their father. Jess writes, “I knew Stump wouldn’t ever think about hiding any of those rocks because he knew that we shared them. They were ours together.”
Stump and Ben’s mutual love and respect stems from their relationship with Ben, their father. Viciously beaten by his drunken father, without or without provocation, Ben strives to be a loving husband and father. No matter what the seasonal demands of his tobacco farm, Ben always takes time for his boys.
By her own choice, Julie Hall shuns the loving relationship of Ben and her boys because she considers Carson Chambliss and his congregation her “true” family. Convinced that God intends a special work through Stump, she prepares the boys with Adelaide’s Sunday morning Bible school and ceaseless lessons in Christian behavior during the week. For reasons beyond their comprehension, Julie obsesses about Jess and Stump never spying on other people. She spanks them soundly for listening to their father discuss his tobacco crop because “You don’t need to know the kinds of things a man like him talks about.” Jess grouses that the “Only thing she ever talked about was God and Jesus and Pastor Chambliss, I wanted to tell her that I got tired of hearing about that kind of stuff.”
Clem Barefield, sheriff of Madison County, and the final narrator, notes that “People out in these parts can take hold of religion like it’s a drug, and they don’t want to give it up once they’ve got hold of it.”
A fair man, Sheriff Barefield has never judged or scorned their fanaticism, despite dealing with devastating repercussions. Neither did he suspect Chambliss until witnessing the minister’s omnipotence over his followers’ day-to-day lives. An investigation into Chambliss’s background yields plenty of religious and secular reasons for suspicion, but the minister is so elusive that Sheriff Barefield admits, “I couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd of two men.” When summoned to a crime involving Chambliss’s church, Sheriff Barefield is not surprised, but about the intentionally vicious cruelty he writes: “I won’t ever be able to forget no matter how hard I try or how old I get to be.”
A Land More Kind than Home, Reading Friends, is classified a mystery, but, since we discover early on that Chambliss is the criminal, the suspense genre better fits the story. Mr. Wiley builds masterful suspense through the narrations by switching from the present to a few days or weeks prior and to Adelaide’s history. More than once, I muttered, “So what if Adelaide grew up on the mountain with her great aunt?” or “Sorry about your family’s tragedy, sheriff, but let’s move this story forward, so I can see if Chambliss gets his. He’d better!” In retrospect, I realized that their backgrounds established Adelaide and Sheriff Barefield as reliable narrators because Chambliss appears in the story’s action only four times.
Each narrator’s allusion to hell adds to the suspense. Adelaide sitting in the church parking lot: “I stared at the church through all the bright heat and thought about him sitting in there in all that dark and waiting.” Jess, returning from Adelaide’s house to the church on Sunday morning: “The heat waves shook in front of me like a flame coming up out of a cigarette lighter, and for a minute, it looked like every one of them people in the parking lot was on fire.”
Unfortunately for Sheriff Barefield, his experience is more tangible. Discovering Chambliss’s address two days after the crime, the sheriff finds him in a darkened barn. At Chambliss’s suggestion, he reaches up to turn on a light bulb and looks straight into the eyes of a snake about to strike. Attempting to recover from his fall with the nonchalance a man in his position should command, Sherriff Barefield looks to the barn’s far wall and realizes that what he believed to be leaves rustling in the wind was “hundreds of molted snake skins tacked to one whole wall.” Much to his credit, the sheriff walks away with a last word that appears to crack Chambliss’s self-righteous veneer.
Stump’s defiant disobedience of his mother’s rule to never spy on people launches the plot and continues with Chambliss manipulating Adelaide, Jess, and Sheriff Barefield to a resolution that is probably the closest to hell on earth that a person can experience.
Wiley holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, an M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has received grants and fellowships fromthe Asheville Area Arts Council, the Thomas Wolfe Society, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. His stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Roanoke Review and The Carolina Quarterly, and his essays on Southern literature have appeared in American Literary Realism, The South Carolina Review, and other publications. He teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife currently live in West Virginia. A Land More Kind than Home is Mr. Cash’s first novel.