Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind than Home

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A Land More Kind than Home Summary

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In his first novel, A Land More Kind than Home, American author Wiley Cash creates a thriller in an updated version of the Southern Gothic genre. Published in 2013, this work explores the secrets that govern a small North Carolina town and the ways in which a community can fall under the sway of a charismatic religious figure with sinister motives. Set in the in 1980s, A Land More Kind than Home is told from the points of view of three different residents of the town, each of which is limited in their understanding of what it is they’ve witnessed. By piecing together their stories, the reader gets the full picture of what happens as a result of a toxic combination of blind faith, suspicion, and self-preservation above all else.

The first narrator is Adelaide Lyle, an octogenarian former midwife in the small town of Marshall. She lays out for us the changes that happened at a nearby church after the arrival of Pastor Carson Chambliss, a menacing man with a disturbingly powerful ability to influence those around him. Practicing a Pentecostal charismatic Christianity complete with faith healing, snake handling, and speaking in tongues, Chambliss papered over the windows of the church and keeps whatever goes on inside a secret. After a woman died from a snake bite during one of Chambliss’s services at the Church of Signs Following, her body was moved to the garden to make it seem like she was bitten there instead. Adelaide stopped going to services, instead agreeing to keep quiet if she would be allowed to keep the children at her house while church is in session.

The narration switches to the point of view of Jess Hall, a nine-year-old boy. Jess has a mute and developmentally disabled older brother named Christopher, nicknamed Stump. Jess’ mother Julie is a devoted attendee of Chambliss’s church, but his father stays away. Once, Jess and Stump saw his mother and Chambliss undressed in her bedroom – and Chambliss saw Stump. The next day, Stump is taken to the church for a “healing,” and when Jess peeks in the window, he sees the church elders handling Stump violently. Shocked, Jess cries out – but Julie and the other church goers think that the sound is the mute Stump miraculously starting to speak. Later the same night, Julie takes Stump back to the church for another “healing,” where something clearly goes wrong, although no one tells Jess what happened.

The next narrator is Clem Barefield, the county sheriff. From him we learn that Christopher has been killed during the second “healing.” On his way to investigate, Clem tells us that Jess’s grandfather Jimmy was an alcoholic who abused Jess’s father Ben. Clem has also done some research on Chambliss, learning that before taking up preaching, he had been a meth dealer who blew up his meth lab, killing a teenager in the process. While in prison, Chambliss developed his cult of consuming poison to test his faith.

We return to Jess’s perspective. At Adelaide’s house, Jess sees his brother’s dead body, and his father finally calls the sheriff – it turns out that Chambliss had told everyone not to call the police. Church elders arrive on the scene, but Ben angrily fights them until Clem arrives. Jess’s grandfather Jimmy takes the boy home, where Jess remembers catching fireflies with Stump, and Jimmy helps him think through the concept of death.

Through Clem, we learn more about Jimmy, whose unsafe electrical work was responsible for the accidental death of Clem’s son. Clem realized that the reason the wiring was faulty is that Jimmy was drunk – something he confirmed when he found a passed out Jimmy and beat him up. The next day, Jimmy took responsibility for Jeff’s death.

Adelaide remembers delivering Julie’s son Christopher in the middle of a blizzard, and tells us that originally the nickname Stump was a kind of compliment a stranger had paid to the little boy for sitting quietly on the stoop. Adelaide highlights the problems in Ben and Julie’s relationship, which has broken down because of Julie’s faith and Ben’s inability to deal with his childhood abuse at the hands of Jimmy. Because Ben is unable to be emotionally open, he has neglected Julie so much that she had an affair with Chambliss. Adelaide reveals that this affair had led to a pregnancy, which Julie aborted.

Clem asks Adelaide to tell him what happened to Christopher in the church. When she gets emotional over the boy’s death, Clem becomes angry that a non-parent is pretending to know what such a loss feels like. Adelaide reveals the truth about the woman killed in the church whose body was moved, and Clem confronts Chambliss with the fact that Stump died from asphyxiation – he suffocated from a punctured lung inflicted by church elders.

Jess sees his father drive off with a shotgun after finding out about Julie and Chambliss. Julie decides to run off with Chambliss, and calls Clem for an escort. Adelaide also calls Clem, to try to stop Ben from attacking Chambliss. Julie and Chambliss drive up to the Halls’ house, and find Ben outside with his shotgun. Ben shoots Chambliss and instantly kills him. He aims a second time at Julie, but only manages to open a crate of snakes. Clem arrives just in time to prevent Ben from accidentally shooting Jess – but to do this, Clem ends up shooting and killing Ben. When Jimmy arrives, he and Clem share the pain of having inadvertently killed each other’s sons.

The novel ends in Adelaide’s voice, as she recounts that Jimmy is now Jess’s guardian, the church has reopened without a pastor, and Jess still goes there for services.

Readers may notice that the novel’s structure in large part mirrors the story of the Garden of Eden from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Julie and Ben are Eve and Adam, and like Eve, Julie is tempted to break her vow to Ben by an evil man deeply connected to snakes.