by Wiley Cash (Random House Struik, R215)

Reportedly, pondering a novel of note, JD Salinger once said: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

I wish I knew young American author Wiley Cash. If I did, I’d call up and tell him that “A Land More Kind Than Home” was just too short…

Says Cash: “I’d like people to understand that I’m a writer who cares very deeply about the people and culture of North Carolina, and I struggle to represent that place and those people with clarity, honesty, and love.”

That “care” comes through on every page of this very powerful first novel.

I was so invested in the characters, in particular, Jess, whose autistic brother, Christopher (aka “Stump”), is the doomed focus of this tale, I wanted it to never end.

Cash sets his compelling story in the depths of his own home region, North Carolina, telling the tale via the voices of three characters: nine-year-old Jess, whose adolescent curiosity dredges up some very unpleasant home truths, (not the least that adults don’t, necessarily, possess the wisdom to suss out evil); Adelaide Lyle, who, at 81, is well sussed and one of the few in town with the courage to make a stand against Marshall Chambliss, (the charismatic, very shady “pastor” who seems to hold many of the townsfolk in thrall) and Clem Barefield, the Madison County sheriff.

Still trying to recover from his own traumatic loss, some years back, Barefield is now tasked with the unenviable job of unraveling the causes of the death of a young boy.

It doesn’t help that, far too many of the locals seem in thrall to Chambliss – who, on arrival in town, in 1975, immediately changed the thrust of the local church, posting outside two verses from the gospel of Mark: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Cash said: “I got the idea for the novel when I was in grad school. I was taking a class in African American literature, and my professor brought in a news story about a young, autistic African American boy who was smothered in a healing service at a storefront church.

“The church I went to was Southern Baptist. There weren’t things like faith healings that extreme, but it was something that I knew about and that I was comfortable talking about.”

The fact that there are still so many people worldwide who still question whether we are responsible for our own fate, or whether we can lay the bad stuff at the door of “the devil made me do it”…, is a scary thought. – Sally Scott