In Southernmost, Kentucky author (and treasure) Silas House creates a road trip, family drama, and mediation on the disparity between modern Christianity and its most rigid adherents. He begins with a flood in Tennessee, and a family on the brink.
Asher is the pastor of a small church in a small community. At the height of the flood, his son Justin disappears in search of his dog and Asher, Justin, and two other men help rescue a father and daughter. When Asher invites the men into his home, Asher’s wife Lydia objects.
“Did those men leave?”
“No,” Asher said. “They’re putting on some dry clothes.”
“We can’t have them in here, Asher,” she said quietly.
“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Asher whispered. “We’re the lucky ones.”
“What would the congregation say? It’s not right — “
“Not right to help people in trouble?”
“I know who they are,” she said. “They’re — you know what they are, Asher. We can’t have them in here around Justin.”
Asher has dealt with this dilemma before: his brotherLuke left Asher’s own birth family years earlier, unwelcome due to his own sexuality. For years, Asher has missed his brother but accepted his absence as the way things ought to be, never divulging that he occasionally receives an unsigned postcard from Key West, Florida.
Ten years without his brother. He thought of their mother sitting at the yellow kitchen table while Luke danced across the red linoleum. Asher was laughing and clapping — only twelve, Luke four years older. Their mother’s mouth clenched into a wrinkled line, like a pink drawstring purse. . . . .
Their mother darted up quick as a spider, snapped off the radio in one sharp click of her wrist.
The word she had said to Luke then.
Luke ran from the room, from the house, down to the willow-shadowy banks of the Cumberland, where Asher found him later, watching the river.
Near the beginning of the novel (just so you know I’m not giving away the ending), Asher undergoes a Road to Damascus change. He welcomes the gay couple to his church and then his position there is terminated, his wife Lydia throws him out, sues for divorce, and tries to take all visits with Justin away. Asher feels he has no option but to take the boy and run.
The descriptions of Silas House’s work tend to include words like “masterful,” “redolent and rich,” “poetic,” and “haunting.” In an interview with novelist Jeff Zentner for the Parnassus’ book store blog, musings, House discussed how he came to this particular topic at this time:
When I was little, our home was quickly overtaken by a flood and we barely escaped. So I had personal experience, and I knew the way an event like that can impact you spiritually and physically. When the 2010 flood hit, I heard a preacher on the radio saying it was the wrath of God because of “accepting gays.” I had already created this character who I knew was going to make a principled stand for equality and as soon as I heard that, I knew I had the impetus for the entire novel. So mine is a fictionalized version of that flood that I’ve moved to 2015 to coincide with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. I loved working against such a dramatic backdrop to begin the novel.
Southernmost is a powerful work that offers chewy discussion on themes of family, redemption, morality, choice, love. If your book club has a diversity of political viewpoints, it may be a volatile fuse. I personally think that’s a good thing, and that’s what discussion is for.
In the interview with Parnassus, House discusses the use of food in his work: “I always strive to make my writing as sensory as I can and few things do that as well as food. And we have such a strong cultural attachment to food — I mean, I’ve seen arguments bordering on violence about whether or not cornbread should or should not have sugar in it. (For the record, I say no.)” Interestingly, the Parnassus blog spells cornbread as one word; in the novel, Silas House spells it as two.
Some of the meals described:
fried green tomatoes, corn bread, cucumbers, green onions, and sweet tea
chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, a slice of tomato
red beans and rice, corn bread, chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in vinegar, avocados sliced and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and blackberry pie for dessert
Asher fixes grilled cheese, fried bologna, and peanut butter and jelly (with a Nehi) sandwiches for Justin and packs a bag with chips, granola bars, oranges, bananas, Nabs, peanuts, cashews all of which Justin eschews and asks for a honey bun.
If you need a cornbread recipe, here’s Southern Living’s official one. No sugar, Mr. House: https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/ben-mims-perfect-cornbread
Silas House talked about the music of Southernmost in his Parnassus interview as well (it’s like Jeff Zentner was reading my mind!) and said:
Once I knew that Asher was moved and changed by the music of Patty Griffin, I knew more about him. Once I figured out that Justin is obsessed with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, I had him pegged. Then there’s Bell, who has named her cottage after a Joni Mitchell song. For me, music is such an integral part of everyday life that I can’t imagine characters who don’t care as deeply about it as I do. This book had a soundtrack of about 75 songs that I listened to over and over again over the course of many years and that hugely informed the theme and mood of the novel.
Here are some of the songs I found as I read:
I Don’t Want to Know, Fleetwood Mac
Wonderful, My Morning Jacket
The Mamas and the Papas
Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell
My Sweet Lord, George Harrison
My Dixie Darling, Carlene Carter
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, traditional Scottish song
Read Southernmost. Discuss it. Enjoy it.