The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
2011 Books on Tape
Reader: Catherine Taber
Finished on 2/22/12
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
Columbia County, Arkansas, 1956
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.
Every first Sunday in June, members of the colorful Moses clan gather for their annual reunion at “the old home place,” a sprawling hundred-acre farm in Arkansas. Samuel Lake, a handsome young preacher with a huge heart and strong convictions, has brought his wife, Willadee Moses, and their three young children to the festivities. For the children it’s a time to vacation away from the prying eyes of their father’s congregation, and for Willadee it’s a chance to be with her beloved mother and father. But tragedy strikes, jolting the family to their core and setting the stage for a summer of crisis and profound change.
Samuel soon learns that he has lost his parish back in Louisiana, so he and his family take up temporary residence on the farm. Everyone is drawn to Samuel’s eleven-year-old daughter, Swan, with her outspoken questions and mischievous spirit. Swan, in turn, is fascinated by her powerful, secretive Uncle Toy, a war veteran, and his sultry wife, Bernice, an old girlfriend of Samuel’s whose desire to win back her old beau is a bit too obvious. But when Blade Ballenger, an eight-year-old neighbor, comes into Swan’s life, she focuses all her fierce energy on keeping him safe from his terrifying father, never realizing the possible dangers to herself and to those she loves.
With characters who come to life like members of one’s own family, Jenny Wingfield’s The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a novel with the universal reach of the most memorable and lasting works of fiction.
I listened to the first five chapters of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake twice. On purpose. I fell in love with Catherine Taber’s southern accent, which is not too sweet or syrupy, but just thick enough to let you know you’re listening to a work of Southern fiction. Superb Southern fiction. Not since Kathryn Stockett’s The Help have I been so moved by a novel.
I need to read the printed version of this book since it’s all but impossible to keep track of favorite passages while listening. I did find this excerpt, which gives you a sense of the writing, over on Random House:
The reunion was always held the first Sunday in June. It had been that way forever. It was tradition. And John Moses had a thing about tradition. Every year or so, his daughter, Willadee (who lived way off down in Louisiana), would ask him to change the reunion date to the second Sunday in June, or the first Sunday in July, but John had a stock answer.
“I’d rather burn in Hell.”
Willadee would remind her father that he didn’t believe in Hell, and John would remind her that it was God he didn’t believe in, the vote was still out about Hell. Then he would throw in that the worst thing about it was, if there did happen to be a hell, Willadee’s husband, Samuel Lake, would land there right beside him, since he was a preacher, and everybody knew that preachers (especially Methodists, like Samuel) were the vilest bunch of bandits alive.
Every year, the day after school let out for the summer, Samuel and Willadee would load up their kids, Noble and Swan and Bienville, and take off for south Arkansas. Willadee already had freckles everywhere the sun had ever touched, but she would always roll the window down and hang her arm out, and God would give her more. Her boisterous, sand-colored hair would fly in the breeze, tossing and tangling, and eventually she would laugh out loud, just because going home made her feel so free.
Columbia County was located down on the tail end of Arkansas, which looked just the same as north Louisiana. When God made that part of the country, He made it all in one big piece, and He must have had a good time doing it. There were rolling hills and tall trees and clear creeks with sandy bottoms and wildflowers and blue skies and great puffy clouds that hung down so low you’d almost believe you could reach up and grab a handful. That was the upside. The downside was brambles and cockleburs and a variety of other things nobody paid much attention to, since the upside outweighed the downside by a mile.
The “old homeplace” had been a sprawling hundred-acre farm, which provided milk and eggs and meat and vegetables and fruit and berries and nuts and honey. It took some coaxing. The land gave little up for free. The farm was dotted with outbuildings that John and his sons had erected over the years. Barns and sheds and smokehouses and outhouses, most of which were leaning wearily by 1956. When you don’t use a building anymore, it knows it’s lost its purpose.
Wingfield has created some wonderfully endearing characters, all with interesting personalities and names such as Willadee, Noble, Bienville, Swan, Calla, Toy, and Blade. Reminiscent of Scout Finch, with her spunk and tender heart, Swan Lake (yes, that is her name) is one I will never forget.
The most delicious thing in Swan’s life was this one week every summer of wearing boys clothes and forgetting about modesty. She could scoot under barbed-wire fences and race across pastures without those confounded skirts getting in her way. She was little. She was quick. And she was just what Noble dreamed of being. Formidable. You couldn’t get the best of her, no matter how you tried.
When I first read The Help, I was completely bowled over by Stockett’s writing. I loved it so much that I went on to listen to the audio.
It was just as good.
When the movie came out, I went to see it with my daughter.
It was just as good.
My gut tells me that the printed version of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake will be just as good as the audio. How wonderful if someone were to option the rights for a film. I imagine Reese Witherspoon as Willadee and maybe Jon Hamm as Toy or Samuel.
See what some of my blogmates have to say about this remarkable novel:
Jenny Wingfield does an admirable job in recreating a mid-century Southern family. The food, community, gossip, and landscape all come together to firmly place the reader in the South during a time in history when reliance on faith and belief in family were strong. (Wendy, of Caribousmom)
Just finished and just amazed. I loved this book…The book has so much to offer. It is filled with a family of terrific characters that in one way or another touch your heart. You just can't help but let them in…This "best read" is now on my list of "must purchase" so I can add it to my personal bookshelves. (Joy, of Thoughts of Joy)
Recommend? An EMPHATIC yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This was a home run read for me and one that lingers in my mind still. One of the best reads for 2011. (Staci, of Life in the Thumb)
Jenny Wingfield weaves together a beautiful story about family, about humanity. It's both heartfelt and humorous, and also dark and tragic. It's about being there for family and others when they need you the most. This book is certain to make my top 10 list for 2011. You MUST read this novel. (Diane, of Bibliophile By the Sea)
Final thoughts: Jenny Wingfield is a consummate storyteller who has written the proverbial Great Read. I believe it will be The Help of 2012. Read it!
About the Author
Born in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, Jenny Wingfield was a preacher's kid who grew up "pretty much all over Louisiana". She graduated from Southern State College in Magnolia, Arkansas, and for several years, taught English, French, and Language Arts. She lives in Texas with her rescued dogs, cats, and horses. Her screenplay credits include The Man in the Moon and The Outsider. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is her first novel.
Go here to listen to an excerpt, read by Catherine Taber.