Blossoms into a beautiful, powerful and still-important look at the nature of family and at the consequences of the choices we make in our lives.
Despite its title, Southernmost is divided equally between rural Tennessee and the title-inspiring bottom tip of Florida. Appalachia and the Florida Keys have some of the most unique and, to some, insular cultures in the United States, and the contrast between these two cultures serves as the foundation for Silas House’s important, timely novel.
Southernmost tells the story of evangelical preacher Asher Sharp. When a catastrophic flood hits Asher’s small Tennessee community, a gay couple who have lost their own home nonetheless help Asher search for his nine-year-old son Justin’s lost dog. Asher invites the couple, Jimmy and Stephen, to wait out the flood at his home, but Asher’s wife, Lydia, refuses to let them stay, fearing that their sinful way of life will rub off on Justin. To Asher, his wife’s judgmental response brings back memories of how he treated his brother Luke when Luke came out 10 years prior. Asher called him an abomination and Luke left town, and their only communication for the past decade has been Luke’s occasional postcard from Key West.
Asher tries to welcome Stephen and Jimmy into his church, but his congregation proves to be even more hateful than Lydia and things spiral out of control for Asher. Soon, he’s on the run with Justin, taking a chance on finding Luke in Key West and gaining his forgiveness.
The first half of the novel, while tightly paced and sprinkled with powerful dialogue, is so-focused on its too-convenient plot that it ends up cutting a few corners and forgoing much descriptive language. Perhaps House is going for a Kansas-to-Oz effect, as Key West and its people, its flora and its fauna, are given descriptive and varied attention. But rural Tennessee and its inhabitants come across as drab and flat. Asher’s shifting perspective on homosexuality, which appears to be monumental given the opinions of his wife and congregation, isn’t given enough time in the opening section. Though his parting sermon is beautiful, it isn’t until later, as he seeks forgiveness from his brother, that we see how he might have come to change. And the situation itself, with the viral video, the flood, a dead dog and even mention of real-life villain Kim Davis is manipulative in its quest for the reader’s outrage.
However, as Asher and Justin journey to Key West, the novel becomes more sure of itself. We learn more about Asher’s faith, particularly as we see him in comparison to Luke, now a (liberal, still gay) preacher himself. Though Justin is often way too wise and capable for a nine-year-old, his perspective on his parents’ disintegrating relationship is powerfully and realistically brought to life in these later chapters. Though the reader’s sympathy is obviously with Asher, House never writes Lydia as anything but a real person, and the reader is able to understand why Justin wants to be with his mother again.
All of this builds to a conclusion that is admirable for its restraint, particularly given the crescendo the book hits at the halfway point. The point is, of course, Asher’s growth, but it is also about the possibilities and impossibilities of life. There are things that people can escape from and others that they cannot, and House is wise to deal directly with these things rather than slide around them or throw in deus ex machina. House also plays with what family is and means: blood-relations, church family, chosen family, in-laws and outlaws. He does this through a small but sturdily-developed cast of supporting characters, most of whom come to life in the Key West portion of the book.
Southernmost may struggle to free itself from the tense constriction of its own tight plot, but like its characters, it takes flight when it leaves Tennessee behind and heads south. What starts as an important, but stressful, novel blossoms into a beautiful, powerful and still-important look at the nature of family and at the consequences of the choices we make in our lives.