The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Random House • $25 • ISBN 9780385344081
On sale July 12, 2011

At BookPage, we get a lot of requests for must-read debut novels and Southern fiction. Ever since the publication of Room by Emma Donoghue in September of last year, we also hear cries for books with memorable child protagonists.

Now I have a new answer for people longing for fiction in those categories—and the book satisfies all three criteria: Jenny Wingfield's The Homecoming of Samuel Lake.

I was initially drawn to this novel because of the setting; it takes place in a small town in south Arkansas. If you read this blog with any regularity or have talked to me for more than five minutes, you know that there are few places in this world I love more than my home state.

When the book opens, the Moses family is gathering for a family reunion. Willadee Moses (daughter of the Moses matriarch and patriarch) and her three kids have come for the fun, but Willadee's husband (Samuel Lake) is absent—he's a preacher and had an annual meeting to attend.

Something horrible happens at the reunion, though, and Samuel comes back—in part to be there for Willadee and the kids, and in part because he's been forced to leave his parish in Louisiana. On account of these circumstances, the Lake family takes up residence on the Moses farm.

This is really a story about family, and you will fall in love with the characters. Best of all may be 11-year-old Swan Lake (ha), the daughter of Samuel and Willadee. Shrewd and spunky, at different times she reminds me of Scout Finch, Ramona Quimby and Harriet Welsch. The book is told from multiple points of view, including Swan's. Here's a scene from early in the novel, when Swan plays hooky from a funeral with her Uncle Toy:

"Guess you don't like funerals, either."

"Never been to one." Swan was lying, of course. Preachers' kids attended more funerals than any other kids in the world. Toy had to know that.

"Well—" Toy left the word hanging in the air for a while, like that said it all. He shaved down a little knob that jutted out on one side of the stick. Finally, he said, "You ain't missed much."

Swan had been afraid he might say something adult like "Does your mama know you're here?" Since he didn't, she considered the two of them immediately bonded. Swan yeared to get close to somebody. Really close. Soul deep. She wanted the kind of friendship where two people know each other inside out and stick up for each other, no matter what. So far, she'd never had that, and she was convinced the reason was because her father was a minister.

What do you think? Will you pick this one up when it comes out in July?

What are you reading today?

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