There should be a category in the mystery genre when you have a good idea what happened and who’s responsible and where the mystery is in how things are going to play out. Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home belongs in that category. Within the first chapters, you know why the victim died and you’re pretty sure how it happened who holds the blame. But because novel is set in a small, small town in North Carolina, the mystery is whether the local law is going to punish the guilty or rough local justice is going to get there first.
At the center of this book is a preacher with a bad past. As you learn more about him, it’s hard to believe that he’s managed to shed any of his dubious past. Carson Chambliss keeps secrets and he forces the members of his church to keep those secrets. Chambliss’ church believes in speaking in tongues, handling snakes, and laying on of hands. But Chambliss keeps the windows of the church covered so that no one can see in. The impression I got of Chambliss is that, in spite of what he preaches, he still thinks that what he’s doing is wrong.
Cash has three narrators piece the whole tale together in turns. First there’s Adelaide Lyle, a midwife and backwoods healer. I think she might have been my favorite character because of her strong common sense. I like female characters who just do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, Adelaide is so afraid of Chambliss–especially after he threatens her with a loaded rattlesnake–that she can’t be much help to another narrator, local sheriff Clem Barefield. Because Chambliss has been allowed to instill his followers with strict secrecy and fearful loyalty, Clem has a hard time getting anyone to tell him what happened on the night Christopher Hall died.
The third narrator is Jess Hall, who has most of the piece of the puzzle. He and his brother came home early from a salamander catching trip to find their mother with Chambliss. Chambliss only manages to see Christopher. The boy, called Stump by everyone else, is mute and probably a bit autistic. He’s never spoken in a word in his life. But Chambliss is clearly afraid that the boy will figure out a way to tell everyone and starts to pressure the mother into letting him try to “heal” Stump. That’s when things go wrong. Cash leaves it unstated that Chambliss was trying to kill Stump, but I think that’s what happened.
A Land More Kind Than Home is more complicated than I may have indicated here. As the narrators told their stories, I got the impression that everyone carried a little bit of the blame for what happened. Of course most of the blame lies with Chambliss and Stump’s mother, but it’s not that simple. Jess carries some because he doesn’t tell anyone what he saw after his brother died. Adelaide carries some because she knew what Chambliss was capable off and didn’t tell anyone. Clem carries some because he let Chambliss’ church be for so long without finding out what was going on.
This book is hypnotic. As I read it, I would stop to check the page numbers every now and then and would be surprised to find that I was 30, 50, 70 or more pages from the last point I checked. Cash captured the voices of three rural North Carolinians so completely that I could hear the characters speaking as I read their words. I almost didn’t have time to ponder the questions this story kicked up. What do you do when religious beliefs endanger lives? What should you do when you know something the police need to know but you’re afraid of what might happen to you if you tell? Should you let local justice take care of something the law doesn’t quite cover?
A Land More Kind Than Home is a stunning tragedy, beautifully written.