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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-05-09
- Reviewer: Staff
Set in 1950s Arkansas, screenwriter Wingfield's restrained, sometimes dark debut novel tells the story of preacher Samuel Lake and his family and how they are all affected by their move back to his wife Willadee's hometown. After Willadee's father kills himself and Samuel finds out that there's no church post waiting for him in Louisiana, the Lakes' decide to stay with Willadee's mother, Calla, on the farm in Arkansas and help out with the family store. Samuel's gorgeous but delusional sister-in-law (who's also his former fiancée) Bernice, is delighted: she only meant to teach Samuel a lesson by marrying Willadee's brother, Toy, a decent guy who came home from the war and killed Bernice's lover with his bare hands. Toy fruitlessly hopes to regain his wife's affections, but he's gladdened by the presence of the three Lake children: Bienville, 9; Swan, 11; and particularly Noble, 12, whom he takes under his wing after an encounter with school bullies. Swan, meanwhile, befriends the neighbors' abused son, Blade, and the children witness a horrible scene in which Blade is disfigured by his violent father, Ras, who also reveals his sadism with the horses he trains for a living. Wingfield writes complex, believable heroes, although her villains are straight from central casting, but the writing is good and the story well done, with redemption trumping tragedy in scenes ripe with tension and dread. (July)
Heartbreak and charm in the South
The best of Southern fiction depicts both the charms and the underbelly of regional communities, and Jenny Wingfield’s The Homecoming of Samuel Lake fits nicely within this tradition. The story takes place on a farm in the south of Arkansas in 1956, where the charms range from spunky children creating worlds for themselves on large stretches of property, to family suppers complete with made-from-scratch biscuits, to neighbors who operate on the honor system. This idealized, simple life is rocked by no small list of heartbreaks: animal abuse, suicide, rape, murder and the near falling apart of a family.
Samuel Lake is a preacher, and every summer his wife, Willadee, and their three kids go without him to the Moses family reunion. His wife is a Moses, and the reunion is on her parents’ farm; Samuel can’t attend because of an annual conference of Methodist ministers. This year, however, is different. A tragic event takes place during the reunion, and Samuel learns at the conference that he’s lost his church. Samuel and Willadee decide to stay at the Moses farm all summer with their clan: eldest son Noble, who longs to be “formidable,” book-loving youngest son Bienville, and daughter Swan, a charming 11-year-old spitfire with a big mouth and a mind of her own. And yes, her name is Swan Lake.
Wingfield has also written screenplays for The Man in the Moon (a 1991 movie starring Reese Witherspoon) and The Outsider (a 2002 Western with Naomi Watts), and there are plenty of cinematic moments in The Homecoming of Samuel Lake. Drama runs high on the Moses farm, not least of all because the family runs two businesses on their land—a grocery store and a bar, which doesn’t always sit well with Samuel the preacher (although the bar does attract a crowd when he holds a tent revival across the yard). All hell really breaks loose when Swan harbors the young son of a mean horse trainer—the villain of the story—and when Willadee’s conniving sister-in-law decides she’d rather be married to Samuel.
There are many threads and personalities packed into this novel, and at times I wondered how it was all going to come together. Due to a quick narrative pace and funny, kind-hearted characters, though, readers will gladly stick it out and immerse themselves in the world of Samuel Lake.