Tag Archives: fathers

A Land More Kind Than Home: Acknowleding Faith

a land more kind

I’m an atheist. Telling you this will reduce your trust in me, but it should also help you understand my reaction to Wiley Cash’s (excellent) first novel A Land More Kind Than Home. I loved the book. Found it moving, brilliantly paced and narrated, complex in its themes and written with an even, understated beauty. I loved the book, too, because the book directly engages with the consequences of belief and ideas of fate and free choice.

As an atheist I really ought to consider the actions and predispositions that come attached to belief in God more than I do. Atheism is a belief structure (if only a negative belief structure) that warrants a thoughtful engagement with justice, choice and morality just as living within a religious framework does. But I don’t think about these questions within the context of faith (or its absence) very often, and when I do, it’s usually because I’ve been prompted by a book (yet further evidence of the importance of reading). And so I loved A Land More Kind Than Home for both its complex presentation of these questions and for prompting me to reframe the questions within the context of my own life: what do I hold as dogmatic? when/how do I follow/resist authority? Under what circumstances will I take a principled stand?

Enough circling: what’s the book actually about? Set in the American South, the novel follows the Hall family before and after the oldest son, Christopher/Stump is killed during a revival meeting at the local (Baptist?) Church. More complex than following just the family, the interwoven narrative voices of the town sheriff and a local spinster (crone?!) bring forward the ways in which faith and fate impact those within and outside the Church itself. In some ways a mystery, the novel slowly unfolds what properly took place in the Church and who might be held to account for the crimes (a mild complaint, but this “mystery” element wasn’t necessary from my point of view and added little complexity so much as frustration with just wanting to know what had happened). It then does (really remarkable) work in expanding the scope of time and place around this central plot line by weaving in histories of the families and town in ways that add depth to both the characters, but more importantly to the central conflict/crime. As the novel unfolds and these lives and their histories are explored, the death of Christopher/Stump comes to resonate with whole new sets of questions (how are crimes of fathers inherited? is it possible to change our nature?) in a way that lets the reader circle back to the instigating plot moment with new intensity and feeling.

Finally it is a novel about what we do and do not say or speak. Christopher/Stump is a mute – attention metaphor hunters! – and his brother, Jess, attaches responsibility for Stump’s death because of what he – Jess – didn’t say when he could have. There are other moments where silence/speaking surfaces as significant, but for me it crystallized questions around bystanders and bystanders of faith: what do we allow under the auspices of religion that would not be borne under other circumstances? what do we say and not say under the banner of faith or freedom of expression? Certainly questions in 2014 Canada, with different levels of government trying to legislate what kinds of religious accommodations will be “tolerated” within the framework of multicultural Canada and different community groups and individuals muddling through what can and cannot be “said” with reference to belief structures and practices. And certainly questions worth asking and exploring for ourselves – through reading this book! – to know, regardless of – or rather precisely because of – the belief systems we hold to be most true.

So yes, definitely a book worth reading. A book worth talking about with others, but certainly a book worth talking to yourself about.

(Aside: Also! This book has some of the best “acknowledgements” of any I’ve recently read. I’m a sucker for book acknowledgements – I love a taste and tease of the “real life” behind the author. Wiley Cash writes sincere and sweet – but not saccharine! – acknowledgements and I just loved the apparent genuineness of his appreciation).

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

Medicine Walk: Time Out of Time

medicine walk

What makes for a great storyteller? What makes us listen? What can stories reveal about ourselves and others that allow connection and understanding? Richard Wagamese’s novel Medicine Walk explores these questions through the quasi-quest, quasi-bildungsroman narrative of Franklin Starlight. As Franklin accepts the task of helping his estranged father, Eldon, to his death, he also accepts the role of listener. Just as readers assume this position each time they open a new book, Franklin is unsure what to expect, but committed to the hearing.

This metafictional thread is softly woven, but bears consideration: what do we, as readers, assume (both in the sense of ‘to take on’ and ‘suppose to be the case’) when we begin reading? Genre, narrative point of view, diction and phrasing, author biography and context give us the rudimentary tools in the early pages of a story to position ourselves, to ease into a work and find where we sit vis a vis the story we’re hearing (nevermind that our particular readerly moment is one where books come laden with existing expectations – and reviews like these). Whether a story adheres to or troubles these expectations, and whether our expectations predetermine and limit what we’ll read/hear gets played out as Franklin grapples with reframing his feelings about his father and whether and how much he will accept the stories as true or sufficient recompense. These questions get echoed in Franklin’s confrontation with his own expectations of his father and of his own and Eldon’s separate and twinned identities and histories.

It’s an unusual (narrative) relationship. Eldon, an alcoholic and absentee parent, brings his story to Franklin with the ostensible purpose of telling Franklin about his birth, name, and family, but with the attendant – and mutually recognized – hope of earning, through the telling, Franklin’s forgiveness and some kind of reconciliation. The novel, in its exploration of this relationship, brings forward questions of what can be forgiven, what forgiveness entails, what we owe ourselves and our broadly understood family. Whether knowing the cause of an unforgiveable act, whether recognizing the cause as societal or historic or simply not our fault, can lessen the violence of the unforgiveable.

It also exposes the deeply moving selflessness of love, while still worrying about the difference between selflessness and selfishness. It explores the contours of this division in the character of Bucky in one of the more surprising and rich representations of humility and grace I’ve read in recent memory. He is a complex, if oddly unexamined, character in the book. Complex I suppose in that he performs key plot functions and occupies a layered character position; unexamined in these sense that his thoughts and reactions are obscured to us, accessed only in brief dialogue. Still, a poignant character.

One element of the novel that bothered me – at least for the first half – was that I couldn’t seem to place it in time or place. There were references to wars – World War II and Korea – that let me loosely place it but in an ahistorical (or perhaps extra-historical) way; and (stunning and beautiful) descriptions of place that left no doubt of a fully realized setting – just no setting with a corresponding place in reality that I could quickly identify. But as I latched on to the themes of storytelling I recognized that my desire to pin this narrative down in time and place was to try and evacuate it of its catholic impulse. This story of guilt, mortality, paternity, loyalty and love should, and does, move us regardless of place or time.

Which is not to say it isn’t also particular. It is a story of domestic violence, of poverty and of colonialism while also being a story of one boy making sense of who his father is, his (a)filial responsibilities and his capacity for forgiveness. I’d suggest it is also a book for readers of all stories to think about the responsibilities of listening and our capacity to be moved and changed by what we hear. It is certainly a book you ought to read; a story you ought to attend to.

 

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction