Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a truly lovely debut novel from Jenny Wingfield.  We're in a small rural community in mid-1950s Arkansas; every year, the Moses family has their reunion at John and Calla's home.  It was tradition.  And every year, Samuel Lake would drop off his wife, Willadee Moses, and their three children.  He couldn't stay himself, because every year he had to attend a convention where all the Methodist ministers would find out where they would be preaching, and therefore, whether they would have to move.  The Lake family moved a lot, because Samuel had his own way of doing things that didn't quite meet eye-to-eye with the church and his congregations.

This summer, though, everything begins to change, and not always for the better.  Samuel has faith that God's plan is at work underneath all the apparent misfortune, but that doesn't make it any easier when things gradually start to go from bad to interesting, back to bad, and then about as bad as you might think it could possibly get.

A lot of the focus of the story is around Swan, the Samuel and Willadee's spunky 11-year-old daughter.  Her brothers, Noble and Bienville, are endearing in their own ways as well.  Noble is only 12, and still plays with his brother and sister in their extremely imaginative and enthusiastic games of make-believe, but he is also beginning to think about being a man.  Bienville is a reader with a scientific kind of curiosity.

I could go on and on about every character in the novel, to be honest (Just Plain Honest, not Moses Honest), because I really felt that I had a good sense of each one.  And those I didn't know as well, I wanted to.  I didn't feel that any of them where caricatures; they are all complex, which brings them to life in a way that makes them seem very real.  My favorites, though, would have to be Swan and her uncle, Toy Moses.  I probably fell a little bit in love with him, actually, which maybe is a little weird.  But so what.  As for Swan, I sincerely hope that if I ever have a daughter, she would be just like this little girl.  She's a good-hearted child with a lot of spirit.  She's just not enough of a handful to be what I would consider "naughty" or bratty, but she's enough of a handful that you know she will grow to be a strong, independent, confident woman one day.

Some reviews have compared Swan to Scout Finch, from Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird, and I wasn't sure what to expect from that, but after reading The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, I can see it.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Wingfield's novel became part of a school's reading list one day as well (and even if it does not, it is more than worthy of discussion as book club material).  Many aspects of human nature are present, many of them on the darker side, but there is also a lot of good with the despicable and the horrifying - sometimes in a way, coming out of the despicable or the horrifying.  Besides the staying power I think the themes possess, Wingfield also has a true gift with words; many passages in this novel read like poetry, and it was this as much as the plot that had me up all night to read this straight through.  I could not bring myself to put it down until I'd got to the end and found out how everything turned out.  I'm sure it is not difficult to guess correctly how some events unfold, but that doesn't make the reading of it any less compelling.

Yes, there is obviously a lot of religion in this book - Samuel IS a preacher, after all, but the novel itself is not at all preachy.  I'm not Christian, personally, and I didn't find anything about that particular element to be too much in any way.  And I live in what is commonly referred to as "The Bible Belt," so I am pretty well-acquainted with unsolicited preaching and people trying to Save me. Wingfield has none of that, and in fact, the religious parts of the book are easily more spiritual than anything I'd consider specific, other than references to Bible passages and stories here and there.  Which, again, is to be expected, since one of the principal characters is a preacher, and it's set in the South.

I liked The Homecoming of Samuel Lake so much, I already have a small list of people I plan to loan out my copy to, and it actually released today!  So do yourself a huge favor and pick this up next time you do a little book-shopping.  It is easily, without a doubt, one of the best of the year.

*My copy was received through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program - a big thanks to Random House for sending it out!



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