And if that comparison wasn't enough, the novel has snake handlers, and I am fascinated and repulsed by the notion of snake-handling churches. I read Fred Brown's nonfiction The Serpent Handlers several years ago, so I had a basic understanding of the whys and hows of the snake-handling tradition.
This is the story of nine-year-old Jess and how his family fell apart—how he lost everything at the hands of one evil man, disguised as a pastor. It's also the story of love gone awry, selfishness and sacrifice, children lost, revenge and forgiveness, and redemption.
The story unfolds through three voices: Adelaide, the town's midwife who knows children shouldn't watching adults handling writing serpents; Jess, the fierce protector of his older brother, Stump, who can't speak for himself; and Clem, the sheriff who can't prevent tragic outcomes. The center of all the evil is Pastor Chambliss, a low-life crook who is charismatic enough to seduce a whole congregation into snake-handling—and covering up his mistakes.
There are a lot of "how coulds" in this novel: how could Jess's mother…, how could his father…, how could all these people… —but I can't spoil the novel by investigating those specifically. The question really is: what is lost inside a person that makes them follow a single person so blindly?
It's a tragic book, really, but so beautifully written. The reader wants to best for nearly everyone who is left at the end, and I can't say I like to think about how Jess will turn out as an adult. If Cash writes a sequel, I'd snatch it up in a second.
Highly recommended. Cash is a fantastic writer and storyteller. There was nothing distracting about this novel, and I could have read twice as much of it. I also recommend Brown's book The Serpent Handlers alongside Cash's novel. This is our book club's choice for next month, so I look forward to the discussion and reactions.
Linked up at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books