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Snake handlers riveting but cliché

book“... and these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poisons, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will get well.”

Clem Barfield, the sheriff of Madison County, has been doing his job for 25 years, yet as he ruefully notes, he is still considered an outsider.

“Most people up here claim they’ve got Irish or Scottish, or some kind of blood in them, and I think that’s probably true. Especially if you listen to the folks who drive up here from the universities to tell us about the culture they say’s disappearing. They will go and knock on cabin doors looking to get Jack Tales on their tape recorders, snoop through barns, flag elderly men down from tractors to ask them to sing a couple of old-time reels.”

His 25 years have left Barfield a bit cynical about the region’s cultural heritage and romanticized tales concerning local history. However, experience has taught the sheriff one singular truth: “People out in these parts take hold of religion like it is a drug, and they don’t want to give it up when they’ve got hold it. It feeds them, and when they are on it they are likely to do anything these little backwoods churches tell them to do.”

Of course, if you are a student of Appalachian literature, you know what is coming next: rattlesnakes, copperheads, gasoline and strychnine.

Well, this is hardly unexplored territory. The Appalachian snake-handling church has become something of a cliche ... or, maybe a better word is one that a “literary critic” used recently regarding this practice:  a “shibboleth” —  which Wikipedia defines as “a custom, practice or belief , especially a long-standing one that is now regarded as outmoded or no longer important.”

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However, anyone who is native to this region can verify the fact that however vigorously our scholars may deny the fact, those who “take up snakes” are still with us, as A Land More Kind than Home readily attests.

During the last 30 years, some of our best and/or most sensational writers have weighed in on the topic, including Lee Smith (Saving Grace), Romulus Linney (Holy Ghosts), and Dennis Covington (Salvation on Sand Mountain) — and a multitude of academic studies. 

Even Mari-Lynn Evans’ The Appalachians: the First and Last Frontier attempts to provide insights into this practice (along with interviews with church members).

Now comes Wiley Cash with a novel that contains a memorable villain: the Rev. Carson Chambliss, a disfigured and charismatic minister who arrives in the town of Marshall, the county seat of Madison county (population 860) with boxes of serpents and a glib tongue. In a short time, an abandoned mercantile store undergoes a startling transformation and emerges as the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following.

The remnants of a nearby church is transplanted to this new location (where all the windows are covered with newspapers). What is going on in there? No one knows, but two brothers, Jess and Stump, are curious.....which is the beginning of a tragedy.

A Land More Kind Than Home has three narrators: Adelaide Lyle, a former member of Chambliss’ church who stopped attending services after Molly Jamison, an elderly member of the congregation died from a snake bite. Adelaide was shocked to see Molly’s body removed from the church and left in her garden, giving the appearance that Molly had been bitten in her own garden.

When Adelaide left the church, she took all of the children with her, saying that the church has become “dangerous” during services. For the past decade, she has kept the children out of the church by giving them educational instruction in her own home.

Jess Hall, a nine-year-old boy, relates a complex story (often in language that is too sophisticated for Jess and sometimes irritatingly detailed) about his older brother (nick-named Stump) who is a mute.

Jess unwittingly reveals the fact that his mother is having an affair with Rev. Chambliss. In addition, when Chambliss announces his intention of “curing” the Stump of his muteness by “the laying on of hands,” it becomes evident that Chambliss has an ulterior motive: he needs to eliminate a witness to his affair with Jess’ mother.

Finally, there is Clem Barfield, the local sheriff, who finds  himself investigating Stump’s suspicious death. In the process, he unearths a series of buried events that become a catalyst  which brings this tragic story of old sins, hidden guilt and violence to a bloody conclusion.

On the surface, Wiley Cash has written a fast-paced tale thriller that is generously seasoned with anecdotes, ghost tales and folklore. (I especially liked the spirit of the old mountain doctor riding his mule through a snow storm and Adelaide’s tale about her mummified aunt.)

However, in the final analysis, I must judge this novel to be facile — neatly crafted, but shallow. The plot is packed with unanswered questions and unresolved issues.

I found that I was deeply troubled by the conduct of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following membership. Not only are they guilty of complicity in the death of Molly Jamison, but they are directly involved in Stump’s death (suffocation). Are they malignant and demonic, or just plain folks that don’t like to get involved (or worst of all, merely undeveloped props.)

None of the church members emerge as “human,” but they remain a kind of grey, shuffling multitude ... sort of like staggering and drooling characters in a zombie movie. Certainly, there are no insights into their lives or their acceptance of the Rev. Chambliss’ rituals.

The Rev. Chambliss bothers me, too. Others repeatedly describe him as “evil,” yet the sheriff finds him to be a minor drug dealer who caught himself on fire in a crack operation.  Apparently, disfigurement and a penchant for blunt speech (he asks disconcerting questions) equates to sinister, almost supernatural evil. His relationship with Mrs. Hall (Jess’ and Stump’s  mother) is underdeveloped and the reader knows nothing about their motives or feelings for each other. Certainly, A Land More Kind Than Home could have used a few more narrators ... like the mysterious Rev. Chambliss or one of the church members....or Jess’ grandfather who is so thinly sketched in this novel, he is scarcely there.

Finally, I find the title......well, pretentious. I love Thomas Wolfe, too, and I guess that makes me cautious about using “A land more kind than home” for the title of a murder mystery/thriller.

Perhaps Wolfe’s elegant language will lend a bit of grandeur  to Cash’s first novel. I think that is called “reflected glory.” I fail to see any connection between the title and the book.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. William Morrow, 2012. 320 pages.

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