Sunday, January 20, 2013


The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

Reviewed by Christa Allan

Every first Sunday in June, members of the Moses clan gather for an annual reunion at a sprawling hundred-acre farm in Arkansas. And every year, Samuel Lake, a vibrant and committed young preacher, brings his beloved wife, Willadee Moses, and their three children back for the festivities. In the midst of it all, Samuel and Willadee’s outspoken eleven-year-old daughter, Swan, is a bright light. Her high spirits and fearlessness have alternately seduced and bedeviled three generations of the family. But just as the reunion is getting under way, tragedy strikes, jolting the family to their core and setting the stage for a summer of crisis and profound change. 

As a Louisiana born and bred girl myself, I looked forward to reading a novel by a writer who, as she says, "grew up all over Louisiana" as a preacher's kid. The first sentence of her story about "family and fun and sacrifice and tragedy"  wrapped itself around me and, even as I unwound at the end, the sensation of that embrace stayed with me.

Wingfield's characters range from quirky to charming to vile, but each is developed beyond the boundaries of stereotypes. Even the setting itself, Columbia County, Arkansas in the mid 1950s, feels like a character. The relationship between Samuel and his wife Willadee is a foil to that between Ras and Geraldine Ballinger, contrasting moments of pure tenderness with revolting abuse. Eleven-year-old Swan, the middle daughter of the Lakes, sandwiched between her older brother Noble and younger brother Bienville, steers the story with her spunky nature and her decision to befriend Blade, the Ballinger's eight-year-old son. That decision connects the families and change all of their lives. In many ways, Swan reminded me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird in her determination to right wrongs and to speak from her heart.

I loved Wingfield's writing and her ability to wed the simple and the profound. She prevented Swan Lake from being a name that borders on ridiculous with this: "The girl, she (Willadee) named Swan. Not because a swan is beautiful, but because it is powerful. A girl needs power that she doesn't have to borrow from someone else." That same ability makes the violent scenes all the more gut-wrenching. 

Ultimately, Samuel Lake does find home-the place that defines him-in ways both unexpected and unexplainable. And, perhaps, it's in that testing of all that we believe in that leads us to recognize that where our heart is, there is our home.

This novel would be a great book club selection. Wingfield provides questions for discussion and "Letting the Story Happen," where she discusses how the novel evolved.

Christa Allan is the author of Walking on Broken GlassThe Edge of Grace, and Love Finds You in New Orleans. Her next novel, Threads of Hope, will release in March. You can find her at www.christaallan.comFacebook, and Twitter. After twenty-five years of teaching high school English, Christa very recently she could meet her own deadlines. Christa and her husband recently moved to New Orleans to live in a home older than their combined ages. Their three neurotic cats are adjusting.