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Friday, September 26, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: A Land More Kind Than Home

Way back on 9/15, our group met to discuss A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash.

I read, loved, and wrote about this novel back in 2012, so you can click through for a preview.

But to keep this post standard with the other book discussion reports, here is the publisher's summary:
For a curious boy like Jess Hall, growing up in Marshall means trouble when you get caught spying on grown-ups.  
Adventurous and precocious, Jess is protective of his older brother, Christopher, a mute whom everyone calls Stump. Though their mother has warned them not to snoop, Stump can't help sneaking a look at something he's not supposed to—an act that will have repercussions. It's a wrenching event that thrusts Jess into an adulthood for which he's not prepared. He now knows that a new understanding can bring not only danger and evil—but also the possibility of freedom and deliverance.  
Told by resonant and evocative characters, A Land More Kind Than Home is a haunting tale of courage in the face of cruelty and the power of love to overcome the darkness that lives in us all.
Since I'm already late here, let's get right into the discussion:
  • You know how it all begins…we had liked 10, disliked 0, so-so 1
  • Comments for the so-so person:
    • I didn’t like the essence of the story. I was waiting for justice to be served, but that was not the point. I had to get over that.
  • The liked that people couldn’t stop with the comments, which was great for me because these initial comments helped me to guide the rest of the discussion. Here are some of those first thoughts:
    • The first page got me and I couldn’t stop reading.
    • That pastor was evil personified; it was great!
    • I loved the 3 points of view to tell the story.
    • I loved the writing and language specifically
    • I loved the characters
    • Stump and Jess’ relationship was so real.
  • Question— Why did the author choose to tell the story with 3 points of view and why those 3 povs?
    • We needed Jess.  This is a very adult story; the adults drive the action; the history between Clem and Jimmy is complicated; the true story here goes back a long time; a kid pov is needed.  Like us, Jess is looking in on the story with a pov that is innocent and naive.  We need Jess to be us, the reader.
    • We needed Clem because he is “The Law” and Addie is the common sense and historical perspective.  She is also the only one who is not intimately involved in the deaths here.
    • I usually hate when the pov switches a lot, but Cash made it clear.  He marks when a new speaker takes over and gives them a few chapters so we get in their groove.
    • I saw it like a triangle with Jess as the point at the top. He is the most precarious.  Clem and Addie’s points make the base. [ed note: nicely done]
    • I also saw the 3 narrators as representing the 3 different generations present in the story: Addie is the long view, Clem is 25 years in town, and Jess is 9.
  • Question— Although we were happy with who got to tell this novel, whose point of view did you not get, but desperately wanted?
    • Julie! What motivated her? Someone else yelled, “Explain yourself mom!”  Many people expressed that although their first instinct is to want Julie to have a chance to tell us why she made the choices she did, the story is better because we don’t know.
    • Jimmy. He seems like a better man than the abusive, drunk father he was to Ben. We only heard from Clem about how Jimmy was in the past, but never saw it. It would have been nice to hear from him about his transformation; or did he not have a transformation.
    • When we were petering out I mentioned to the group that I was surprised that no one said they wanted to hear from Pastor Chambliss.  Someone put it nicely by saying that he was another example of how charlatans can pull people in, but I did not want to know more about him than that.  Ick.
  • Question: Why did Cash choose to tell this story in such an out of order fashion with 3 narrators?
    • I love that the way he tells the story underlies the fact that no one can ever understand the “true story” of anything.
    • No one person can tell a complicated story
    • Interestingly, the action in this story’s present only takes place over the space of a week, but the novel and the way it is told brings us back decades and let’s us get to the root of the problems fueling the action.
    • I usually hate back and forth stories, yet here I didn’t notice, or I noticed but didn’t mind.  It was all so fluid and necessary for the way he wrote the novel.
    • It is obvious he comes from a family of storytellers (said by someone who had the paperback with an interview with Cash). His easy way with crafting a story comes through here.
  • Question: The title comes from an epigraph at the start of the novel. So let’s talk title and epigraph.
    • I got chills when I went back and re-read the epigraph after finishing the novel.  Many times the epigraphs never make sense to me, either before or after I read the book.  Not this one. It was perfect.
    • The epigram is about a person not wanting to come back home. Coming home is fraught with problems for all of the characters here.
    • The title- A Land More Kind Than Home— the place they are, Marshall, NC is not a kind place. It is, and seems to always have been, a tough place. They will go somewhere better when they die. Talk of heaven being better comes up a few times.
    • On a literal level, their lives were hard.  Addie’s personal biography broke our hearts. The environment is hard too.
    • There were many descriptions of the land and the topography that together paint a picture of a rough place to live.
    • The title spoke to me of hope. Even though life is tough, if you believe there is hope. If you have faith, there is hope.
    • Even the ending is like this.  It is a tough ending, people die, but their is a sense of hope that the remaining characters will move forward.  Even the church is going back to being a positive place, no longer a secretive church.
  • Question: What is Jess had told the truth about it being him— not Stump— who they heard speak at the church meeting earlier? What if he shared the information about his mother and the pastor too?
    • We cannot underestimate the lure of Chambliss. It was not the entire town who he held under his spell, and behind the newspaper covered windows of the church, but there were many who needed to fill an emptiness inside of them.
    • Telling the truth would not have changed Julie. She was too far under the spell.
    • Besides, who would he tell? He had no one who would have listened to him.
  • We talked about the ending at length and although I am trying hard not to give too many spoilers, there were some excellent points brought up by the group, points that are worth sharing.
    • We talked about specific lines and situations throughout the novel that foreshadowed the final showdown between Chambliss, Julie, Ben and Clem.
    • When Clem stopped “knowing Ben” that’s when everything changed. When he turned the gun on Jess, all bets were off.
    • So much foreshadowing, like Clem talking about the previous Sheriff retiring after 25 years and Clem being at year 25 himself.
    • The foreshadowing built to the climactic scene well when you analyze it— it was all building for decades, but as I was reading it, the ending felt rushed.
    • I agree, but then I thought about how it was 20 years of issues that came to a head quickly, so really not as fast as you think at first.  I liked that Cash allowed me to see the slow build over the years without sacrificing the story. It still moved quickly even though it was complicated.
  • Question: Why did Addie Shelter Julie?
    • That wasn’t a good choice.  Julie was the bad one here.
    • Clem pointed out that he knew what it was like to watch a mother grieve, but Addie did not.  
    • I think it was important that Addie was not a mother herself. A mother might not have been as understanding to Julie, who allowed Chambliss to kill her child.
  • Question: How does A Land More Kind Than Home compare to a Shakespearean tragedy?
    • This book had a story and ending much like Romeo and Juliet, although instead of 2 families star crossed lovers, they each lost a son.
    • What I love about this novel is that we think Stump’s death is the tragedy but it is not. It is only the incident that brings 20 years of issues to a head.
    • The entire novel had a biblical feel. All of it was a cautionary tale.
    • It also ends with healing and salvation— of the people, of their church. They literally let the light in.
  • Question: How will Jess and Jimmy get on after the novel ends?
    • Addie seems to think that they will be fine.
      • But, someone said, she also watched someone die at the hands of Chambliss and said nothing for 20 years, so does Cash want us to think they will really be fine? Hmm. That is an interesting question.
    • Most of us thought Jimmy changed, but we were not sure.
    • One of the themes of the book is redemption, so...
    • I think it will be a hard road for Jimmy and Jess, but with the help of the community, Addie and Clem, they will thrive.
    • I don’t know. I am worried that Jess will always resent Clem. Also, is Cash saying Jess will repeat the sins of his father and grandfather.
  • Final words or phrases to describe this book?
    • revenge
    • faith
    • hope
    • betrayal
    • good vs evil
    • light vs dark
    • forgiveness
    • understanding
    • healing
    • charlatan/charisma
    • blind faith
    • poignant
    • beautifully written
    • atmospheric
    • lyrical
    • multiple point of views
    • nonlinear story telling
Readalikes:  First, here are excerpts from my original suggestions from 2012:
Wiley Cash's novel is everything people always claim  John Hart is.  Hart doesn't do it for me as you can see here, but many people do enjoy Hart's North Carolina set suspense novels, so I think he is a good suggestions option for some readers. 
But the author Cash most reminds me of is the great Joyce Carol Oates.  Of course, Cash has 1 novel and Oates is one of our greatest living American writers, but I see a lot of Oates in Cash.  A good similar read here would be The Falls. 
The Cove by Ron Rash which also came out this spring, is a suspense story which hinges on its North Carolina setting and is probably as close to perfect a match as you could get here.  At the same May 29, 2012 Book Lover's Club, Marilyn had this to say about The Cove:
"I was immediately caught by the cover - a stream with wooded hills on both sides and the back of a woman with long hair wading in the water.  There is a brief introduction by the author which says that during WWI Germans in America were taken to internment camps. It is set in the backwoods of North Carolina.  It starts in the 1930s with a man who is doing a land survey.  He is from out of town and not feeling very welcome.  He finds an abandoned well and pulls out a skull.  Flash back to 1918 where a young sister and brother are trying to run their farm after their parents die.  The sister helps a man who has been stung by wasps and she finds a note in his pocket that says I am a mute and trying to get to New York and that is all I will say…" 
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier shares the southern setting, lyrical language, and vivid characterizations with A Land More Kind Than Home. They also share a shifting point of view and a storyline in which characters must come terms with the difficulty of their life situation. 

A suggestion that is a little more off the beaten path would be Alden Bell's The Reapers Are the Angels. Like Cash's novel, Bell's is also a psychological suspense story merged with a Southern Gothic feel, only in Bell's novel, the characters inhabit a world where they has been a zombie apocalypse.  Take out the zombies though, and they are remarkably similar stories.

And for a cross format watch alike, the entire time I was reading A Land More Kind Than Home, it kept reminding me of the HBO series Carnivale from the early 2000s.  Both have weird preachers and an atmospheric, odd, bleak, yet beautiful story driven by psychological suspense, setting, and characters.  Go seek out the DVDs for the series if you liked this novel. 
Other suggestions from this discussion and second reading:
  • Someone in the group mention that the novel was Faulkner-esque.  This is a very good comparison.
  • Someone else mention it reminded her of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In this case it was the child narration about a crime, a small town, and the issues than run deeper than the specific crime at hand that seemed similar to her.
  • Shakespearean tragedy was discussed above and specifically Romeo and Juliet with the 2 families and their dead children.
  • I love that the ladies are getting so good at these RA suggestions.  Another person mentioned that this book reminded her of her favorite author, who also happens to set his novels in North Carolina, Pat Conroy and specifically Beach Music.  Also a great suggestion.
  • Finally, NoveList had this outside of the box suggestion-- Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer, "In this novel, we meet Sunny (congenitally bald), her mother (terminally ill), her husband Maxon (a socially inept genius engineer), and their son (diagnosed with autism). The story moves back and forth between Sunny and Maxon’s childhood in rural western Pennsylvania and their present in an affluent suburb of eastern Virginia. Like Cash’s novel, Shine Shine Shine shows us the costs of forcing people to fit into conventional notions of normality."

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