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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Published by Random House ISBN 978-0-385-34408-1
Hardcover $25

I put The Homecoming of Samuel Lake on my Most Compelling Books of 2011 list. The story begins with the patriarch of the Moses family killing himself at the annual family reunion. Set in Arkansas in the 1950s, Samuel Lake is a preacher who has once again lost his job and retreats back home to his wife Willadee's family to regroup.

Samuel and Willadee have a wonderful marriage, they are very supportive of each other. They have three young children, Swan being the only girl. Samuel used to date Bernice, who later married Toy, Willadee's brother. Bernice is still in love with Samuel, and decides to use her beauty and feminine wiles to get Samuel back.

Samuel sets up a tent revival, hoping to get enough people to come and perhaps getting a permanent preaching job out of it. Willadee works during the day at her father's bar, Never Closes, which is attached to their home, and also houses the grocery store that Willadee's mother runs.

Swan and her brothers find Blade, a mysterious young boy, hiding in their barn and discover that he has been badly abused by his father, Ras Ballenger. Ballenger is evil personified, and every time he makes an appearance in the novel, I got chills. He beat his wife, sons, and the horses that he was supposed to be training. He is one bad, bad man.

When Swan's family takes the young boy in, Ballenger swears vengeance against the Moses/Lake family, and waiting for his plan to take place ratchets up the tension in this heartbreaking, beautifully crafted novel. I finished the book on the treadmill and almost had to get off because I was sobbing so hard.

I loved the characters in this book, with Toy being my favorite. He is man of few words, so when he speaks it is powerful. He also has a sense of sadness about him. Seriously injured in WWII, there is a question of whether or not he killed a man involved with his wife while he overseas. He forms strong bonds with the children, and his tenderness with them melts your heart. His evolution is moving, and Toy is a truly unforgettable literary creation.

So many of the characters are well-drawn- Willadee, Swan, Samuel, Blade, Bernice, even Ras. The way the Lake family lived their faith was inspirational. They loved God and each other, and tried hard to embody their faith everyday. I liked the way that Wingfield wrote how important it was to the family and the story.

The difficulty of being married plays a large role in the book. Willadee and Samuel's marriage is tested, but is strong. Contrast that with Toy and Bernice's unhappy, lonely marriage and the sadness that Willadee's mother feels about how the last years of her marriage unfolded. I think the author is saying that marriage is something that needs to be cared for and tended if it is to survive.

My favorite lines from the book are from Willadee and Toy's mother, about Blade's effect on Toy:
"She had no idea that Swan was also doing something special for Toy, or that Toy's life was changing in ways he could have never anticipated. All she knew was that this little boy was doing a kindness for her own little boy- the man who had been her little boy- and her gratitude knew no bounds."
As a mother of two sons, those lines killed me.

I could go on and on about this book, but all I really need to tell you is that if you love beautifully crafted books, with a compelling story and characters that feel so real, you will love The Homecoming of Samuel Lake.  I almost wish I were reading again for the first time.

rating 5 of 5

If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, you will like this book.

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