It just makes sense that a book about a Pentecostal preacher begins with a flood. Since the days of Noah, floods, storms and rain that just won’t quit have served as the backdrop for all kinds of sermons from all kinds of preachers.
In Southernmost, the hauntingly beautiful and urgently necessary novel from Silas House, Asher Sharp’s life is upended by a flood, of well, Biblical proportions. The waters rage as a storm turns the river near his Tennessee home into a destructive force. In the search for a beloved dog, Asher and his son, Justin, encounter two gay men.
Jimmy and Stephen have lost everything and are in search of shelter. Lydia, Asher’s wife and a woman with firmly set convictions in no danger of changing them anytime soon, won’t budge. This couple may be strangers in need of help, but there’s no room for them in this inn.
Although Lydia won’t change, this decisive moment changes much for her. The decision leads to a sermon with consequences for Asher’s employment and a rupture in a marriage that had already been strained to it’s limit.
Asher has preached many times, we can imagine, about the central role of the moment of decision in a person’s life. And now they all get to live that truth. In the decision’s aftermath, Asher heads south, as far south as he can go. He’s heading away from the place and the people and the church he has known and loved, in search of something fresh and a reconciliation long overdue.
Southernmost is a lot of things.
It is a road story about a father and son who flee forces and decisions that we know will inevitably catch them. It has the requisite twists and the lovable characters whose histories make them unlikely yet fiercely committed allies.
It is also part social commentary on the double-edged sword of social media. A teenager records Asher’s sermon calling for tolerance and acceptance, a decision that both facilitates connection with people struggling with the church and makes Asher immediately recognizable in a moment where celebrity and fame hinder his cause.
Southernmost also narrates an argument about the church’s pursuit of holiness – and whether it comes from vigilantly policing who is allowed in a community of grace or whether it is a call to make room for angels, even when they show up in forms you are convinced isn’t compatible.
But no matter how far you get from the novel’s opening pages, Southernmost is centered on what happens when the flood comes and the terrain changes. The driving force in House’s story is Asher’s discovery that once the water subsides, the ground he thought was forged by rock is actually sand.
He had built his life and his family and his career on a faith that was certain, a faith where things were black and white, where there was right and there was wrong, and if you wanted to experience the blessing of God you better make sure you make the right choices and live the right way. But in a reflective season of discernment that upends his life, and the lives of those he loves, Asher realizes such a faith doesn’t work for him any more – and if he is honest with himself, it never really did.
“I’ve tried following all the rules and doing everything by the book,” Asher tells Justin. “But the whole time it was making me a hard person instead of a better one. That ain’t no way to live, son.”
The truth of Southernmost is a truth most of us know, even if we’ve never had to survive a flood or flee everything we thought we knew. Few people get to navigate life without feeling the ground shift at least once. It’s a rare person who doesn’t discover the things they assumed were true were more carefully crafted illusion than anchored reality.
This is the dilemma we face when the waters recede. It is the reality that stares back when the doctor walks out of the room. It is the crisis we cannot avoid when we’re told our services are no longer required.
In the end, it is House’s generosity that anchors Southernmost. There are characters and points of view to which he, and his readers, are more sympathetic. But House has written a book devoid of enemies.
That is one of the many reasons Southernmost is a novel for our moment. At a time when generosity seems in short supply and everyone can appear a threat, House has crafted a story that reminds us of the ways kindness is the healing balm our wounded souls require.
We find that, if we are lucky, in one another. The good life, it turns out, is moored by compassion born of generosity.
“No matter what happens, don’t ever hate,” Asher pleads with Justin. “And always believe. Try your best not to lose that.”
That’s a good word, both before and after the storm.