A Land More Kind Than Home is a worthy book. The subject matter - the church abusing its position of trust to imperil the congregation with poisonous snakes and dangerous healing rituals - leads the reader to feel an obligation to support the novel. Offering criticism could feel like, somehow, supporting the abuse.
But for all the many positive aspects of the novel, the faults do leave a lasting impression. The use of colloquial voice is a case in point. Wiley Cash has chosen to narrate the story through three characters - Addie Lyle, an old timey churchwoman and folk healer who acts as the local midwife; Jess Hall, a young boy whose elder brother Stump has a learning disability; and Clem Barefield, the local sheriff. The characters use a Southern dialect - especially Addie - which adds authenticity. It also adds a complication which can interrupt the narrative flow and irritates as much as it fascinates.
The other main source of irritation is the cod-philosophy. The novel is not long, but at times it feels too drawn out and liable to start exploring the nature of faith and belief; the nature of a church; and the nature of trust. The counter-argument, of course, is that this is the essential subject matter of the book and this excuses the philosophy. But a good novelist should show rather than tell. He would allow the reader to develop the ideas rather than place the words in the mouths of his characters. It's a fine line between being endearing and actually preaching and, at times, Wiley Cash falls on the wrong side of that line. It's a shame.
Having said that, there is something about the book which does draw the reader in. Cash creates a convincing community - or two communities with those inside the church and those outside. The image of the small building with yellowed newspapers to blind the windows is striking. The image of crates being carried in and out of the church; and a mysterious pastor whose address is not widely known do build up an intrigue. This is enhanced by two of the three narrators not being present in the church but merely looking in; reading signs and joining dots.
The character of Carson Chambliss, the bad pastor, is terrific. Irish literature has many examples of a lawman going up against a priest and Chambliss is as bad as any of the fictional Irish priests. In Irish literature the church always wins - but this is America. It is interesting to read the story without being quite certain how it will play out.
There are also interesting generational issues played out between Jess, his father and his grandfather. Just as there are those who are inside and those who are outside the church, there are similar divides between those who know the past and those who don't. The past is not talked about, but it is a major influence on how people live their lives.
The Stump storyline is handled sensitively and is apparently based on fact. The events surrounding Stump's death are, for the most part, reported second hand and are patchy at best. We see an outcome; we infer motivation perhaps; but we don't need to be taken through it blow by blow. This is a strength. It also allows the ending, which is unexpected and shocking, to have real power without having to compete with earlier events.
Issues with flow and pacing detract from a novel which, one feels, should really have been better. On the other hand, Wiley Cash does create a convincing community; handles learning disability with sensitivity; and includes some beautiful rural imagery. Overall the novel is on the side of the angels, but it isn't perfect.