I’m so glad I got the opportunity to read Jenny Wingfield’s debut novel, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake. In some ways it’s a departure from the kind of novels I normally read; however, in other ways, it’s a perfect fit for my eclectic taste because this historical novel is Southern Gothic at its best. Like Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café? You’ll love this new novel!
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is set in 1956 Southern Arkansas, in a farming community like so many in rural areas in the mid-1950’s. Moses family tradition is that every first Sunday in June is set aside for a big family reunion. Nothing gets in the way of their family reunion – no matter what, that reunion is sacrosanct and you are expected to be there if you’re a member of the Moses family. Goodness knows Calla and John Moses’ 100-acre family farm is big enough to hold a lot of family and it’s a good thing since they had five kids who now have kids of their own.
“John Moses didn’t give a hoot about Samuel’s obligations. He wasn’t about to mess with Moses tradition just because Willadee had been fool enough to marry a preacher.”
Preacher Samuel Lake, his wife Willadee Moses Lake, and their three kids look forward to the Moses reunion all year long. They can hardly wait to get there and see everybody and eat the absolute best home cooked food anywhere around until they’re as stuffed as ticks. And the kids can’t wait to play until they fall over from complete and total exhaustion. It’s the only time all year when they can all just relax and don’t have to worry about how they behave, because at the reunion they don’t have to be a Methodist preacher’s family, and the kids can just be kids. Eleven-year-old Swan is the ringleader of all the kids. She’s a strong, independent girl who everyone loves for her amazing spirit and kind heart.
“’That child is a terror,’ Grandma Calla would say to Willadee when she thought Swan wasn’t listening. (Swan was always listening.)…Both Willadee and Calla rather admired Swan, although they never would have said so. They just indicated it with a slight lift of their eyebrows, and the least hint of a smile, whenever her name came up.”
Samuel Lake is a good man, a loving husband, and a loving father. His ministry is about a loving god, not a vengeful one. He doesn’t believe his god wants his flock to live in fear and anxiety. He truly believes his god will take care of him, his family and his flock. It’s a beautiful perception of god’s relationship to man, and a different one than most rural preachers held at that time. For some reason that means he invariably ruffles feathers, so he keeps getting moved to a different church every year.
Samuel leaves Willadee and the kids at the Moses farm to prepare for the reunion while he goes to the annual ministers conference to discover where they’ll be reassigned for the coming year, only to learn his services as a preacher are no longer needed. In other words, he’s been fired for not being a fire and brimstone preacher. He suddenly feels cast adrift because he can’t envision being anything other than a minister and his god doesn’t seem to be telling him what he needs to do, no matter how often he asks.
Because her father, John, suddenly passes away during the reunion weekend, Willadee and her brother have to help Calla run the store, the bar and to keep the family going.
“John Moses couldn’t have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he’d planned it for a lifetime. Which was possible. He was contrary as a mule. It was the weekend of the Moses family reunion, and everything was perfect – or at least perfectly normal – until John went and ruined it.”
Meanwhile Swan has practically adopted eight-year-old Blade Ballinger like she would a skittish scrawny stray puppy. Blade has been horribly abused and tortured by his father, the Moses’ neighbor. Swan is determined to keep him safe. Although his father gives her the creeps, she’s heedless of the significant danger Blade’s father represents because she has only known love and kindness in her life.
Although this is Jenny Wingfield’s first novel, she cut her teeth by writing outstanding screenplays including The Man in the Moon, The Outsider, and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s A Dog Named Christmas (winner of the 2010 Genesis Award).
In some ways, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake reminded me of Harper Lee’s work and in some ways it reminded me of Fannie Flag’s work. All of the characterizations have incredible depth. The surroundings are painted with a rich, three-dimensional paintbrush. You know these people as surely as if they lived next door to you. This is a real portrait of the rural South – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a story that demonstrates that the best of all intentions sometimes just aren’t enough when confronted with evil. But it’s mostly a story about family, a wonderful ordinary family whose love for each other has the power to overcome everything.
I need to stop gushing because I’m embarrassing myself. Let me just say that it’s rare for a novel to hook me with the first few sentences but this one did (see the last quote above). I believe it’s got the chops to become a classic and I wholeheartedly recommend it!
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