Land O’ Goshen: A Novel
by Charles McNair
St. Martin’s Press
Summary: A religious war has broken out in America and the reader experiences it through the perspective of Buddy, a fourteen-year-old orphan in Alabama. The premise is terrific but author Charles McNair doesn’t make it work. Land O’ Goshen has some good moments, but the book’s “dead” middle dooms it to mediocrity.
Review: The last decade or so has seen increasing division between “red” and “blue” America and religion has played a key role in the divide. Therefore, Charles McNair’s 1994 novel Land O’ Goshen is still topical in that it depicts an America embroiled in a civil war between believers and doubters. McNair gets off to a terrific start in detailing what a fundamentalist-run U.S. would be like –
“You could be in some jail, waiting for the ship to come haul you off to some miserable prison island. That’s where they send people now who walk swishy or throw a ball funny or get pregnant when they’re not married. Those that can’t get to sleep at night without a drink of alcohol. You could have a tattoo. Then you’d be rotting in jail for sure. Marking your flesh is a big sin” (p. 25).
McNair makes skillful use of Buddy, a child narrator in the same vein as Huck Finn or Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird). Buddy relates what he sees in a matter-of-fact way that reveals the idiocy of the adults around him. The reader quickly learns that Buddy is an orphan who idolized his older brother, Randy, whom the Christian soldiers killed. But Buddy has not taken things lying down – he actively opposes the fundamentalist government in ways that will have readers cheering him.
Cissy – the Plot Changes
The first sixty pages of Land O’ Goshen are terrific, but McNair then loses his way. At this point, Buddy meets a teen girl named Cissy Barber. The “Cissy” sections aren’t bad, but McNair abandons writing about the religious war and spends about 150 pages developing the relationship between Buddy and Cissy. Land O’ Goshen might have worked as either a comment on the perils of fundamentalism or as a teen romance, but it doesn’t work as both. The Cissy sections often bored me and I longed for McNair to return to the religious theme. (As an aside, McNair includes some surprisingly-explicit descriptions of Buddy and Cissy’s physical relationship).
A Return to Form
The end of Land O’ Goshen (Part Two, pages 207-264) partially rehabilitates the book. Here, McNair returns to the religious theme and also ties together Buddy and Cissy’s relationship. There are some decent “action” scenes, though one aspect of the plot borrows too heavily from James Dickey’s Deliverance. Also, McNair includes a nice plot “twist” when discussing the warring Christian soldiers and rebels.
Land O’ Goshen isn’t terrible. I’m always interested in reading books about Alabama because I often recognize the characters and the settings. Still, I cannot recommend this one.