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Southernmost

by Silas House

Southernmost by Silas House X
Southernmost by Silas House
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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In Silas House's sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher's family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church.

Southernmost opens with a devastating flood in Cumberland Valley, Tennessee. Could it be divine punishment for the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage? Thirty-five-year-old Asher Sharp, a Pentecostal pastor, has a shaky faith that has been diverging from his wife Lydia's fundamentalist certainty for a while now, but the flood and its aftermath provoke a crisis that changes things forever.

When Asher goes in search of his eight-year-old son, Justin, who ran off to search for their dog, he gets pulled into a rescue effort. A floating house is about to slam into a bridge with Caleb Carey, a deacon from Asher's church, and his family stuck inside. Jimmy, a Nashville songwriter new to town, finds Justin and then helps save Caleb and his daughter. Meanwhile, Jimmy and his partner Stephen's house has been washed away. Asher tries to extend hospitality by giving them fresh clothes and a place to stay, but Lydia won't have it: what would his parishioners have to say about Asher appearing to condone homosexuality?

In the coming days, Asher defends Jimmy and Stephen's right to attend his church, but scandal mounts until his congregation votes him out of his post. He gives a passionate speech about moving beyond judgmental attitudes, but it does no good. In fact, the speech is his undoing: filmed on a phone and uploaded to YouTube, it goes viral and serves as Lydia's lawyers' key evidence that Asher is an unstable zealot unfit to have custody of Justin after they split up.

In desperation, Asher kidnaps Justin and sets out for Key West, Florida, the southernmost point of the United States. This is where he believes his estranged older brother, Luke, lives. Ten years ago, Asher went along with the usual conservative Christian disapproval of Luke's homosexual lifestyle, corroborating their mother, who called Luke a "faggot" and threw him out of the house. The brothers haven't spoken since, but Luke has continued to send Asher unsigned postcards featuring snippets of literature (see Beyond the Book), all postmarked Key West.

Asher's response to Jimmy and Stephen takes on new meaning when we realize it is his attempt to atone for how he failed to love his own brother. Once he gets to Key West, Asher takes a job cleaning holiday cottages. Apart from looking for Luke, he lies low in case anyone recognizes him or Justin from the news. It's clear that this life lived on the run can't be sustained forever, but in the meantime Asher finds kindred spirits in Bell, his reclusive boss, and Evona, his moody colleague, both of whom have backstories of loss and rejection. Like Asher, they turned to Key West as a refuge for the brokenhearted.

Surprisingly, Justin becomes Asher's spiritual guide. He's no ordinary little boy. Lydia took him to therapy because he was too "soft" to cope with life, crying over dead animals and failing to fight back against school bullies. But Asher wants to preserve Justin's sensitivity, which, as we discover through passages from Justin's point of view, resembles mysticism. Justin prays to "The Everything," the force and meaning that underpin all of life. "Justin believes God is big like the ocean. Even bigger. But lots of people don't. They think He's small enough to fit in a church house." For Asher, too, the only God he can accept now is one that can't be contained by any religion. "That was the way back to believing: being conscious, seeing the God in everything and not just the Bible or the Church. That was the way back."

Wondering if Asher would find Luke and how this kidnapping saga might end kept me reading with rapt interest. Although I won't spoil what happens, I can say that I found House's plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonated with me, and will mean a lot to anyone who has grown up in a strict religious setting and later come to question it.

We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I loved House's characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world: "She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will," "The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat" and "The horizon has changed to the red of a geranium." It's a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in August 2018, and has been updated for the June 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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