Saturday, January 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Southernmost by Silas House

Silas House is one of Kentucky’s foremost contemporary writers, yet I’d only read one of his novels, Eli the Good, until our book group chose Southernmost for our next meeting.

The protagonist, Asher Sharp, is a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a small Tennessee town who has lost the verve for the harsh, exclusionary, judgmental preaching that had made him so popular with his like-minded congregation. He has a wife who is steeped in this type of religion and a nine-year-old son who is a more independent thinker. Asher loves his son with his whole being, but he has fallen out of love with his narrow-minded wife.

An historic flood hits his community with devastating consequences. Among the newly homeless is a gay couple who had recently moved to the community. Asher offers to let them spend the night in his home, but his wife rebels. This is the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Asher’s backstory is that he had a gay brother who was shunned and abused by his mother. Asher adored the older brother, but sided with his mother and threw himself into spreading the message of hate and intolerance. He has not seen his brother in ten years, but receives occasional cryptic postcards from him. Asher is filled with regret for the way he dealt with his brother and for the self-righteous beliefs he once held and encouraged others to hold.

When he tries to preach a more inclusive message to his congregation, things blow up in his face. He’s voted out. His marriage falls apart. And he loses custody of his son. Unable to bear the loss and fearful of leaving his son to grow up under those influences, he kidnaps the boy and sets out for Key West, where he believes his brother is living.

Despite finding a place to live and work in isolation, Asher soon realizes that living on the lam is a terrible environment for a child.. But the only option now is to return to Tennessee where he will undoubtedly be arrested.

This novel is beautiful and sad. The nasty characters have also suffered and their viewpoints are understandable if unacceptable. Asher’s heart is in the right place but his actions are misguided. The message is important. The delivery is a bit preachy, but given the characters, that’s to be expected.

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