Monday, October 7, 2019

Review: Southernmost by Silas House

When you hold a belief so close to the very core of who you are, when it helps define not only you but the community around you, it can be painful to question it, and even more so to change it. In Silas House's latest novel, Southernmost, revivalist minister Asher Sharp's questioning of a foundational piece of himself will finish off his marriage, put him at odds with his community, and drive him to an act of desperation.

After the Supreme Court legalizes same sex marriage, the Cumberland River in Tennessee floods, wreaking devastation and causing loss of life. Asher's congregation sees this as God's judgment for the decision so even after a newly arrived gay couple saves the life of a congregant and his daughter the congregation is unwilling to let go of their belief that homosexuality is wrong. Asher, however, has been having questions about the teachings of his faith for a while and this show of humanity pushes him even further. When he gives a sermon and tries to welcome the men into the community, the sermon goes viral and he is fired from his job. In the face of community-wide disapproval and pushed to desperation by the thought that his wife Lydia, soon to be his ex-wife, will keep their young son Justin from him at all costs, Asher kidnaps the nine-year old and flees to Key West with him, in hopes of finding his long estranged brother Luke, the brother he once disavowed because of Luke's homosexuality.

The novel is one of discovery, of a faith journey in direct opposition to what Asher had always been told was the word of the Lord, of an embracing of love in whatever form it takes,, of finding grace, heartwarming and thoughtful. Change comes to Asher slowly, and once on the road to Florida, this halting change is intermingled with his fears of being found. His perspective changes through the abused dog he and Justin adopt, through witnessing Justin's innocent and trusting faith, and through the unquestioning acceptance of the people surrounding them in Key West. He grapples with the wide gulf between what he has been taught and has taught others as a preacher himself and what he is coming to see is the right way to treat others. As he wrestles with his own spirituality and a personal belief in what is right and what is wrong, he also has to look at his own life, not just disavowing his brother so many years before, but the violence he has perpetrated on his mother-in-law, and the worry and terror his taking of their son must have inflicted on Lydia. The novel is very often an internal one as Asher goes through the scary process of confronting and possibly changing this very basic belief he's long carried. Allowing a faith to evolve is not smooth or easy and there are bumps along the way but they make the whole process and Asher as a character more believable. While most of the chapters are untitled, several scattered throughout the novel are titled "The Everything." These particular chapters encapsulate a lesson or lessons that Asher might already know but needs to be reminded of. They give him a glimpse into what is right and what is in his own heart. The pacing of the novel is slow and contemplative with it taking almost half of the story to even get to the journey to Florida but that measured pace keeps the focus on the internal journey Asher is taking. This is a touching and beautifully written novel that may not change minds but one that shows that when there's love there's always hope.

This novel is a Women's National Book Association Great Group Read for 2019.

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