Fresh Blood

Name: Wiley Cash

Title of Book: A Land More Kind Than Home

'This novel...delivers a punch worthy of Mohammed Ali. '

Adelaide Lyle is a woman not to be reckoned with. The church has always flowed through her veins but she has not attended a service for the last ten years. Instead she looks after the young children, trying desperately to guard them from a more immediate threat – Pastor Carson Chambliss. Adelaide dislikes the pastor and the way he conducts his sermons, especially the part with the rattlesnakes. One day, Adelaide’s friend was found dead in her garden, but Adelaide knows she was bitten and killed by a rattlesnake right there in Chambliss’ place of worship. She does not agree with Chambliss’ practices – not one little bit. So she protects the young – or tries to.

Jess Hall is nine. His father is strict and his mother is god-fearing. He has a brother, Christopher who is older but doesn’t speak. He is a mute, autistic boy who follows Jess around. Jess loves his brother. Then one day his mother takes Christopher to Chambliss’ place of worship and through a hole in the wall Jess witnesses a truly horrific event as his brother is ‘healed’ by Chambliss with catastrophic effect.

Clem Barefield is the town sheriff and knows everyone under his protection. Soon he is catapulted in to a situation that will blow the town is has sworn to protect, apart.

‘A Land More Kind Than Home’ is one of those novels that resonates and for me, sent a chill down my spine, not due to any twist in the tale, but because the story is so ‘human’. This is a novel about religion and the abuse of power that comes when some who hold religion as the true means of the living and the righteous but are simply acting out their own power game. Cash subtly embodies all that is wrong with the fanaticism of religion in Pastor Chambliss, a man who never practices what he preaches.

The wonderful thing about this novel is how Cash gives his three main protagonists such clear and individual voices. The opening of the book through the eyes of Adelaide is so potent and powerful that it is a shame that we do not hear more of her through the book. Her voice is mainly at the beginning and end of this novel. The main is voiced by Jess and the author is to be commended that he is able to see through the eyes of a child and does not fall in to the usual trap of looking through the eyes of a child with the attitude of an adult. Again, Jess’ voice is clear, innocent and not quite sure what it is exactly he is witnessing during his brother’s ‘healing’.

I guarantee you will be thinking about this novel for days after you have finished the final page. This novel flexes its muscles and with breath-taking prose delivers a punch worthy of Mohammed Ali.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What first inspired you to write your debut novel?
I was living in Louisiana in grad school and I was taking a class in African American literature. In one class my professor brought in a story about a young autistic boy who was smothered during a church healing service in a storefront church on Chicago’s South Side. They were trying to heal him and as he fought against them they lay on his body eventually smothering him. I felt compelled to tell this story but I knew nothing about the experience of growing up in the city’s African American neighborhoods. It was impossible for me to attempt to speak for a cultural experience that existed so far outside my own. At the same time, as I was studying in Louisiana I was really homesick for North Carolina and so, by imagining the same tragedy unfolding in western North Carolina I could write about somewhere I knew very well.
2) The book deals with the actions of a fanatic pastor of a church in North Carolina. There have been plenty of documentaries about this kind of religious zeal. Do you feel you have given a true portrait about this sort of healing rituals or is it exaggerated?
Yes, I do feel that I have given a true portrait of the more extreme aspects of religious practise. Services are all so different and really depend on the church therefore I chose not to represent a full church service. I took parts here and there from different services such as the rhetoric but there was no exaggeration in the content, especially when you look at Pentecostal Holiness Churches. I also used some of the religious language that I grew up with, which was not necessarily Pentecostal but there was definitely a religious fervour there.
3) Some of the church’s ways are simply terrifying. Have you heard stories about people putting their hand in boxes full of rattlesnakes? If so, why did you decide to include it in your novel?
There was one story that was very influential. Dennis Covington wrote a non-fiction book published about 15/20 years ago called ‘Salvation on Sand Mountain’. The book sees Dennis covering the trial of Glenn Summerford (pastor of The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, in Scottsboro, Alabama) and he also experiences a snake handling church in Appalachia. In the book Dennis looks at how Summerford tried to kill his wife with a snakebite and tried to make it look like suicide. This had such a resonance with the power that Pastor Carson Chambliss feels and tries to demonstrate. It inspired the scene where Chambliss is trying to scare Adelaide Lyle. Chambliss puts her hand in the book of snakes to show his control. So much so that she thinks that he could possibly have a control over the snake and its movements. The Pastor proves his power by exercising control over people and things.
4) You use three voices in your novel: Adelaide Lyle, Clem Barefield and Jess Hall. Why did you decide to use these three individual voices to tell your story?
Originally, the first voice that I heard was Jess Hall’s and his was the first line I wrote; “I didn’t know Pastor Chambliss had killed my big brother until later that night”. After that Jess’s voice went quiet and the voices of Ben and Jimmy Hall started coming through but I found this hard going as there weren’t the characters to tell the story. I could see Ben—red-faced and furious with his eyes full of tears as he tried to explain himself through his rage, but I couldn’t quite hear him as well as I heard the other characters. Perhaps this is because he lacked Jess’s emotional distance and confusion, Adelaide’s world-weary perspective, or Clem’s rational melancholy. Or perhaps I just couldn’t understand Ben, a man roughly my own age, because I don’t have children of my own. With Jimmy, if I allowed him a piece of the narrative pie, I knew he’d crack open a beer, light a cigarette, wait for his turn to speak, and then spill the beans about every major plot point from the beginning of the novel to the end.

I wanted to keep the story as organic as possible though therefore, the character of Adelaide came in to represent a purity of belief and also to represent the community and how they might have felt. Jess is a central character as he shows the immediacy of the story. I originally wrote in the present tense for Jess but ended up changing to the past as Jess’s role wasn’t to analyse what was going on but experience it. On the other hand, the sheriff Clem Barfield is very analytical, he’s the outsider looking in on to the situation.
5) I believe Pastor Carson Chambliss is the most evil man I have been introduced to in a book for some time. Did you purposely make Chambliss such a personification of evil or do you feel he is simply misguided by his faith?
I don’t know with this as it’s hard to say. I didn’t create Chambliss like the other characters. Unlike the others I didn’t get inside his head, it was as if I was watching him like the other characters in the book. Looking from the outside I can see that yes he’s an evil character as he’s taken advantage of his power over people. I didn’t consciously set out to write him like that though.
6) When I finished your book I had quite a few questions about religion in today’s lifestyle and how some seem to have retreated to the church to escape the world today. Do you have any religious leanings and did you have to make sure they did not interfere with the telling of your story?
I was raised in a Baptist Church and there are things that have stayed with me such as the virtues of grace and forgiveness but then religious aspects of condemnation and self-righteousness I have not kept. I would say that I have different reactions to different parts of faith and religious practise at different times such as hearing hymns and songs which are good and I feel uplifted but when I see televangelists preaching and asking for money whilst also taking mistresses, it’s not so good. There is something about being part of the church community that I can miss but these feelings didn’t interfere with the book at all. I didn’t write the novel with an agenda and nothing in there is meant to be pro or against religious practises and beliefs.
7) Have you courted controversy with members of religious groups from this part of the United States? Do you feel that literature should be controversial to show people what is happening in the world?
No I haven’t gone out to cause controversy with this book at all and I haven’t had any negative responses from any groups as yet. No one’s been burning my books. And, no I don’t feel that literature can be purposefully controversial. I think that the goal of a writer is to hold a mirror up to the world, to shine a light on issues or aspects of life that the reader wouldn’t have originally seen or known about. If a book is controversial it is because that controversy already exists within society. Books rarely invent anything new; it is the reflection of what’s already there.
8) Do you have any rituals whilst writing?
Not really, although I will do just about anything to procrastinate, but I think a lot of writers do that. I write on a desktop computer without internet access, so my distractions are pretty limited. I like to have some ice water nearby, and sometimes I'll wear earplugs even though we live out in the country and things are pretty quiet around here.
9) Have you started your next book and can you tell us a little about it?
My next novel is about a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and goes on the run. He's compelled to do this after taking some money that didn't belong to him. Like ‘A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME’, it has three narrators: the oldest daughter, a bounty hunter, and a private investigator hired to find the two girls.
10) What three crime novels have made a lasting impression on you?
Harper Lee's ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’ had a huge effect on me. It was one of the first times I realized a child's recollection could carry such emotional weight. I also love Tom Franklin's ‘HELL AT THE BREECH’ about a band of outlaws in rural Alabama and Toni Morrison's ‘SONG OF SOLOMON’, a novel about how an accidental murder and a theft of opportunity can shape a family for generations.