The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Author: Jenny Wingfield
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1950s / Southern U.S. / Families / Small Towns)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House (7/12/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes -- I read this one morning on a day off, when I meant to browse it before getting coffee.
One-sentence summary: A year in a small Arkansas town brings troubles and triumphs to the Moses family.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it absolutely captures the feel of the novel, although guiltily I must admit I rather like the cover on my review copy.
I'm reminded of...: Ellen Feldman, Rumer Godden, Flannery O'Connor
First line: John Moses couldn't have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he'd planned it for a lifetime.
Did... I snortle at the children's names?: YES. Noble Lake, Swan Lake, and Bienville Lake. OUCH!
Did... I almost stop reading once or twice because of the abuse of children and animals?: YES. So warning to the squeamish, this book tackles some serious darkness but in the end, there's enough hope to make what was endured, well, endurable.
Did... I wipe away a tear at the end?: YES. Another book that left me satisfied, sad and happy, at the close.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- this is another great book club pick. Lots of family drama to chew over, small town vibe, and questions about ethics.
Why did I get this book?: Every now and then, I like novels about ministers and their families, having briefly been a minister's wife.
Review: I've been having a great reading summer; book after book just steals my breath away. From the first line of this novel, I had a strong sense of what to expect -- small town drama, a quirky family, a girl growing into a young adult -- and I found all of that in Wingfield's solid debut.
The plot is simple enough: an ugly town secret becomes too much to ignore, and the Moses family -- unwilling to lie -- won't pretend they don't know. Like a storm coming across the prairie, you can see the ugly a mile away, and it's the knowing that Something Terrible Could Happen which makes this novel deliciously tense and stressful.
There's a large cast to follow -- the entire Moses family, neighbors, other townies -- but Wingfield makes it easy enough to keep track of who is doing what. What I'm undecided about is who the novel was about. At first, I thought this was a story about Swan Lake, the 9 year old daughter of Rev. Samuel Lake but I found her to be a catalyst for much of the action, rather than the focus of it; so then I thought, perhaps, it was Samuel Lake, the titular character. A Methodist preacher so oriented toward social justice and equality, he's fired from his church and not offered a new one. But he, too, sort of floats in the background, reactive and pensive in equal part. Maybe it's a novel about Calla Moses, matriarch to the Moses family, witness to violence and love in extremes; or her son, Toy, a war vet struggling with loving too much and not getting loved enough.
In the end, that's perhaps my only complaint: despite the size of the novel, we don't get to really 'know' anyone in the Moses family. There are flashes of insight as the POV moves from one character to another, and it's enough to move the story, but I fell in love with almost all the characters, and I wouldn't have minded a little more. The story tackles some heavy topics and going deeper would have made this novel especially powerful, I think. Still, a great debut and a wonderful novel for anyone who enjoys Southern fic, family stories, or examinations of small town life.
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake to one reader -- just comment with an email to be entered. Open to US/CA readers, closes 8/26.