The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

Written by Jenny Wingfield
Review by Nanette Donohue

Samuel Lake and his family are used to moving to a different town every year. Samuel is a preacher, and though he is passionate about his calling, his opinions sometimes rub his parishoners the wrong way. For the first time in his career, Samuel has not received an assignment, and he returns to his childhood home in Columbia County, Arkansas to live with his wife Willadee’s family. Their return coincides with the shocking suicide of Willadee’s father, the Moses family patriarch, leaving the family to regroup and determine what to do next. Samuel’s return sets off a series of events with unusual and unexpected consequences for the Moses family and the community at large.

Despite the title, this novel is less about Samuel Lake than about the sprawling Moses family that he married into. Wingfield’s characters, both children and adults, are vivid and believable. There’s a darkness to this novel that is almost Faulknerian, a sinister undercurrent lurking just below the surface. Wingfield captures the atmosphere of rural Arkansas in the late 1950s – when she describes the Lake children playing in the summer heat, or Samuel’s tent revival, it’s easy to feel that you are there. There is a villain who is spectacular in his villainy, and a lot of other characters who inhabit a moral middle ground, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but owners of their personal destiny.

It’s rare that I read a novel in one sitting, but I did with this one. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a marvelous debut from a strong new voice in American fiction.