Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Set in rural Madison County, North Carolina in the mid-1980s, this quietly gorgeous novel is most remarkable for its exquisitely rendered sense of place. Mr. Cash not only gives us every kind of sensory news about the community in which he locates his story, but he also paints the cultural environment – the atmospherics – in memorable, thematically enhancing brushstrokes. The major theme is the interaction of religiosity and cruel, cunning evil. Though the flavor of its manifestation is penetratingly Southern, Wiley Cash’s novel leaps beyond its place and time to a profound universality.
The author builds his novel by employing three narrators; that is, three perspectives and three distinct voices processing events that bring their lives into contact. Adelaide (“Addie”) Lyle is a woman well into her eighties who knows the community inside out. As the town midwife, she has had a professional intimacy with almost every family, and she has already outlived many people whom she helped bring into the world. Though she no longer spends time in church, she has taken on the task of giving the church families’ children their religious education. In fact, she has insisted on it and prevailed: in her view, children should not be exposed to what goes on in that church.
The second narrator is nine year old Jess Hall. Wise beyond his years and curious about what goes on around him, Jess is not adverse to risk or responsibility. In fact, he is more or less responsible for his older brother Christopher (nicknamed Stump), a mute who is challenged developmentally. What these boys see, individually and together (they to spy into things that no one is meant to discover), includes the doings in and out of church of the man who ten years earlier took over the church, formerly in the county seat of Marshall, and brought to this more isolated community.
This self-ordained clergyman, Carson Chambliss, is the wolf in minister’s clothing. A man with a criminal background and a hunger for respect and power, Chambliss has the influential church members fired up for heavy-handed “laying on of hands” rituals in the name of rooting out demons within the spiritually or physically diseased. Long ago, he had covered the windows of the church with newspapers to keep prying eyes away. Under Chambliss’s leadership, Stump Hall is helped to his death. Perhaps accidental. Perhaps not. Indeed, the pastor had convinced Mrs. Hall to go along with this purported healing ritual. In fact, Chambliss was sharing her bed in her husband’s absence.
The church elders somewhat irrationally bring Stump’s corpse to midwife Lyle, the town’s true healer and conscience, but of course there is nothing she can do besides comfort the bereaved.
Sheriff Clem Barefield is the third narrator. Sixtyish Clem has had about enough of law enforcement. Checking into the cause of Stump’s death as well as other shenanigans associated with Carson Chambliss’s ministry brings him to the brink of crossing the lines that he himself is sworn to enforce.
Wiley Cash slowly but surely brings together the three narrative streams. Through his orchestration of the partial perspectives of his three main characters, the pieces of plot, information, truth, and falsehood coalesce. The pace is steady, the revelations come to characters and readers in flashes of painful insight. Issues of individual versus collective guilt, of horrors perpetrated in the name of religion, of the redemption found in second chances, and of the capacity for caring and courage in the face of darkness – all receive loving attention by a breakthrough author of tremendous promise.
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