Recently I got a message from a friend asking if I knew a guy named Wiley Cash. Cash is from North Carolina, and I’m from North Carolina. Cash is a writer, and I’m a writer. The assumption went that all writers from North Carolina know each other, or at least of each other. I don’t know Cash, but he had just read at my friend’s university, and I was advised to check out his debut novel on the grounds that “this dude is legit.”
That novel is A Land More Kind Than Home, a moving and powerful tale about life in a small community in the mountains of North Carolina. The story, set in the late 1970s / early 1908s, is told through the perspective of three narrators: Adelaide Lyle, the local midwife in her upper 70s; Clem Barefield, the long-time sheriff in his upper 50s; and Jess Hall, 9, whose family is the most affected by the events that unfold. Unlike many novels with perspective changes, the narrators do not alternate with each chapter. Often the novel stays with the same narrator for several chapters, creating sections of thought that allows room for the narrators to engage events. The story is easy to follow and plot is propelled quickly. The book is not easy to put down, and the narrative structure helps readers justify taking in one more chapter in order to get through each narrator’s full section.
Each narrative voice is strong and distinct. Cash easily moves inside of their heads, allowing the narrators to shine their unique perspective on the series of events happening in and around the town of Marshall. Each narrator also must struggle in some way with knowledge.
Life-long mountain native Adelaide sees the events through a lens that looks far back into the community’s history. She knows the people and the place, and in her eyes nothing that anyone does can be separated from what they did before. She believes in Marshall and the power of its people but, unlike many of her peers, she does not let that belief make her naïve. She knows that evil can lurk in a person’s heart as easily as good. She handles difficult situations as best she can, never giving up on the people she believes to be genuine.
Clem Barefield has been the sheriff for decades but is still an outsider, since his people are not from the area. He has his own personal tragedy to wrestle with that becomes intertwined with the happenings he must investigate, and his insights connect these specific past events to what unfolds in the present. He is not as nearly invested in the maintenance of the community’s spirit as much as Adelaide, and sees the events in a darker shade. As he says while reflecting on past tragedy, “…since then I’ve learned to just go ahead and take fairness out of the equation. If you do, things stand the chance of making a whole lot more sense” (159).
Jess Hall is the heart of the story. His deaf and mute brother, Stump, and his parents, Ben and Julie, become entwined with a secretive ex-con snake-handling preacher named Carson Chambliss. Jess is not burdened by the past but knows information unavailable to characters, and he must wrestle with the weight of this knowledge as he attempts to find mooring as his world floods. Jess wonders in one of these moments of struggle if it is “a sin to think any less of a miracle just because you know it ain’t real” (63).
Wiley Cash also understands the place and people about which he writes. He knows the culture, beliefs, and aspects of daily life. These details are not pronounced, as would be the way of someone fabricating them, but rather bleed seamlessly into the background, remaining omnipresent but never obtrusive.
The only issue I had with the novel was the last chapter, narrated by Adelaide. A Land More Kind Than Home is a story of faith misplaced, and there is no occurrence in the book that merits that faith to be restored. The last chapter was a forced effort at affirmation. It tried to make a right out of an ugly situation without the struggle that such a rebirth would entail; ending the novel this way would require many more chapters. Instead, the conclusion feels like a giant leap that is not grounded in the story. The ending also didn’t fit the voice of Adelaide, the only time the narrative structure falters. The ending comes across as salvation for salvation’s sake. As Faulkner’s Addie Bundren said, “because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words, too.” The characters in A Land More Kind Than Home deserve more than just words at the end.
But the ending can be forgiven. Getting through the journey is the good part. And it is very, very good. The characters here are genuine and the story is powerful. My friend was right – Wiley Cash is legit. Read this novel.
Cash, Wiley. A Land More Kind Than Home. New York: Morrow, 2012. 306 pages. ISBN 978-0-06208814-7
Pages: 306. FOA Pages: 37,101