The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
It’s 1956 and Samuel Lake, a handsome preacher, is voted out of his ministry by yet another congregation, disappointed by his relentless pleas for them to live more charitable lives. Out of options and out of pocket, Samuel and his family are forced to move in with their Arkansasin-laws, the rambunctious Moses clan.
At first they thrive in the unruly sea of relatives – Willadee, Samuel’s wife, runs the bar for Grandma Calla, while the boys, Noble and Bienville, run riot through the surrounding countryside. But when Swan, their formidable but loveable 11-year-old tomboy, crosses the path of neighbour Raz Ballenger, things take a turn for the worse.
Raz Ballenger, horse trainer, is a man who rules both his family and his animals through terror. Used to instant obedience, he is insulted when Swan leaps to his son’s defence, an act that sets a whole chain of unexpected and terrible events into motion…
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is Jenny Wingfield’s debut novel. Wingfield is already an accomplished screenwriter and her most notable credits include The Man in the Moon and The Outsider. However, I think she can now easily add ‘successful novelist’ to her long list of talents, as I thought this novel was incredible – something special that came along out of nowhere and blew me away.
From the very first page it’s easy to see that Wingfield is a very talented writer, one with her own particular style that never fails to pull you in. But what is most wonderful about this novel has to be the characters. Set in Arkansas in 1956, the characters consist of the Lake family – Samuel and Willadee and their children; Swan, Bienville and Noble. After Samuel is left without a congregation and a church to preach to for the year, the family decide to move in with Willadee’s family, the Moses, who each have their own heartbreaking stories that weave in and out of the novel. Most notably we have Calla, Willadee’s mother – a very tough lady who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband and the regrets she feels over the unnecessary strained life they led together. Then there is Toy Moses, brother of Willadee, who is very much devoted to his beautiful wife, Bernice, after returning from the war and killing a man in cold blood for being with Bernice whilst he was away. Bernice however, only has eyes for Samuel Lake, her ex-lover, and she will stop at nothing to get him right where she wants him.
Then we have Blade Ballenger, a young boy who is fighting a constant battle against his father, Ras, who thinks he is nothing but a dumb kid, and treats him like one by beating him in whichever way takes his fancy. Ras is a despicable man and is hated by everyone around him. His wife leads a tormented life and only escapes a beating when Ras is busy beating Blade. Ras is truly one of the most terrifying characters I have ever come across.
Through all this tragedy forms a special friendship that will last until the end of time. Swan Lake and Blade Ballenger find comfort in one another as Swan longs to form a bond with someone after moving around the country year after year when her father gets a new job. Blade seeks someone he can feel safe with, someone he can be young and carefree with like any young boy should be at his age. Swan is probably one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in literature thus far. She is bold and brave. She will do anything in her power to help those she loves, and there is something about her that just makes you want to have her in your life.
Through Samuel’s struggles to find meaning in his life, his constant searching for work, and the growing affections of Bernice Moses, his and Willadee’s relationship comes under a strain that threatens to tear the whole family apart, and this strain is what lies at the very heart of the story. With the new addition of Blade Ballenger to the family, the importance of being there for one another is now more vital than ever.
There are moments in this story where the writing was quirky and full of humour and wit that had me chuckling away to myself. But there are also some incredibly dark moments in this novel that brought tears to my eyes and were very hard to read. Half way through the novel I became so connected with these characters that I couldn’t bare to see anything bad happen to them, and when it did it made me very emotional. Particularly the numerous beatings of Blade are heartbreaking to read, and a scene at the end (which I won’t ruin for you), was extremely upsetting. This isn’t a light read simply about a family pulling through tough times; it is much, much more than that.
One of the best parts about the novel for me, has to be the growing relationship between Toy and the children, particularly Swan. Toy has no children of his own and a wife who can barely look at him any more, and quite unexpectedly Toy finds something special in these kids which bring a whole new meaning to his life. It is through them, that he is able to redeem himself from his past, and come to be the person he always wanted to be.
As you can probably tell there are many, many great characters in this novel, and ones that really will stay with you forever. I loved them all so much that I never wanted to finish reading their story. This is a novel about family, it’s about finding something in your life that has meaning, even if it’s in some place you never thought to look before. It’s a novel about finding happiness in what you already have around you, and about putting others before yourself. This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time and I would urge everyone to read it. I cannot wait to see what Jenny Wingfield comes up with next!
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is out on 7th July in hardback format published by HarperPress.
Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a copy.