A Land More Kind than Home – Wiley Cash. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
In the United States, it is estimated that some 125 churches illegally incorporate snake handling and other dangerous rituals into their services. These congregations, mostly situated in rural Appalachia, point to Mark 16: 17-18 as justification for their practice: “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; they will place their hands on the sick, and they will get well.”
Told from the perspective of three narrators – a seven-year-old boy, an ancient Sunday School teacher and a sheriff who still hurts and hates – A Land More Kind than Home takes place over one bitterly cold, winter weekend in western North Carolina when Carson Chambliss, pastor of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, convinces parishioner Julie Hall to bring her mute thirteen-year-old son Christopher, known as Stump, to the Sunday morning worship service. He’s been warned not to keep children out of the services – a warning that he has ignored. For the past ten years, 81-year-old Addie Lyle has made it her mission to keep children like Stump out of Chambliss’s reach, offering instead to teach Sunday School at her nearby home. She made this decision after witnessing a death in the church some years earlier. “I was afraid because I knew that church,” she explains. “I knew the man who ran it as if he thought he was Jesus Christ himself, and some of those people who went to that church believed in [him] like he might just be.”
But Chambliss prevails and, as Stump’s younger brother, Jeff, peeps through a crack in the newspaper-covered windows, he sees his brother “laying on the stage and Pastor Chambliss and that other man laying on top of him. Stump’s feet were kicking like he was trying to get away . . . and somebody was just banging away on the piano and just about all of them had their eyes closed except Mama. She was staring at them where they were laying on Stump and holding him down and touching him and she was crying and hollering for them to stop.”
Out of fear for his brother, Jeff cries out, “Mama!” Only that’s not what she, the pastor and the congregation hear. They believe Stump has been healed of his sinful inability to utter a sound. That evening, with Chambliss’s forceful encouragement, she brings Stump back to church. A few hours later, he is carried out.
Addie knows that the community of Marshall for years has been long on religion and short on love. “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. And when they’re on it, they’ll turn right around and kill each other over that faith, throw out their kids, cheat on husbands and wives, break up families just as quick.”
Even Pastor Chambliss excuses the fire that burned forty percent of his body when he was cooking meth as the hand of God purifying him. He steals another man’s wife with the same godly justification.
But justice and a step toward healing come to the community and the church once the wrath of Pastor Chambliss is gone. “At one time we were like a frostbitten hand that’s just begun to thaw,” Addie ruminates as the paper is torn off the church windows. “First the tips of the fingers come alive, and suddenly they can open and close. And then the palm begins to feel again. Upturned. Waiting. Witnessing. We began to feel again too.”
In short, Cash uses his story not simply as an examination of backward thinking on the part of rural church goers. Instead he examines the heart’s ability to process love, faith, tragedy and forgiveness. Like many Southern writers before him, he channels the voices of the people from his home state to pen this, his first novel. He’s written subsequent books, most recently The Last Ballad, but for many critics and readers, A Land More Kind than Home remains his finest.
My Wine Recommendation
It doesn’t get any more North Carolinian than NASCAR. So it’s no surprise that team owner Richard Childress established his winery in the northwest region of the state close to his racing operations. (And as every racing fan knows, he bought his team from the legendary, late Dale Earnhardt. Just saying.) It took some time for Childress to establish himself in the wine business, but based on a blended wine like the Reserve Petit Verdot 14, he’s making his mark. The folks of Marshall understand all about new beginnings. They would enjoy this red at their next community barbecue, as long as the good church deacons don’t catch them drinking.