Asher Sharp lives a life of faith and certainty in rural Tennessee. He has a wife, a 9-year-old son and a small fundamentalist Christian congregation he pastors. But when rains swell the Cumberland River into a flood of Biblical proportions, his certainty is swept away with the water.
Two gay men who moved to the country from Nashville seek shelter in his home after theirs is destroyed. His wife insists they be turned away as sinners, but Sharp thinks about his big brother, Luke. He came out as gay a decade earlier and was shunned by Sharp, his family and community. They haven’t seen Luke since.
It is spring 2016. The U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage, a Kentucky court clerk named Kim Davis has made national headlines for refusing marriage licenses to gay couples and Sharp’s life is suddenly turned upside down.
Sharp’s attitudes are changing, and he responds by preaching a passionate sermon about tolerance that shocks his congregation. An excerpt goes viral after a teenager in the pews records and posts it on YouTube. Sharp loses his wife, his church, his community.
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He also is about to lose custody of his son, Justin, which is more than he can bear. In an act of desperation, Sharp kidnaps Justin and hits the road as a fugitive. They head for Key West, where mysterious postcards over the years have hinted Luke is living.
What follows is a fast-paced page-turner, a story of redemption with many twists, turns and surprises. It also is a well-written exploration of the complexities of faith, humanity and how hard it can be to change long-held beliefs.
“Southernmost,” the latest novel by best-selling Kentucky author Silas House, will be published June 5 (Algonquin Books, $26.95). House’s first Lexington reading is at 6 p.m., June 7 at Brier Books, 319 South Ashland Avenue.
Sitting on his front porch in Berea, where House is an assistant professor and National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, he talked about his ambitions for this sixth novel, his first set outside Appalachia.
“My main goal as a writer has always been to show rural people as they really are,” House said. “Everybody in this book, the way they're reacting to people being gay, is based totally on the reality of rural people I've witnessed.”
House began working on the novel a dozen years ago, about the time he came out at age 34 after 12 years of marriage to a woman, two daughters, now in their early 20s, and two best-selling novels. He is now married to Jason Howard, a writer and the editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly published by Berea College.
House grew up near Corbin in a conservative family and a Pentecostal Holiness church. But he said this book is not autobiographical.
"I didn't want to write another 'coming out' story,” he said. “I thought it could resonate in a bigger way if I wrote about a person who is evolving and changing the way they think about an issue like this. A whole lot of Americans have been in that boat, or are in that boat.
“That doesn't necessarily mean they are dealing with accepting a gay person, but just changing their value system,” he added. “Changing from the way they were raised to the way they approach the world now. We've all been through that. For me, the book is about accepting change.”
One of the novel’s strengths is its complex characters. There are no purely good people or bad people, just a lot of flawed people trying to do what they think is right. Eventually, they all change in one way or another.
“One of the main reasons I did come out was because of my children; I started seeing the way they thought about the world,” House said.
“I knew then that I could no longer deny who I was,” he added. “A lot of people who I really expected to be embracing were not, and a lot of people who I expected to shun me didn't. So it taught me a lot about making assumptions about anybody.”
Another thing House wanted to explore was the complexities of faith.
“You don't ever see a story about gay people and faith,” said House, who is now an Episcopalian. “Lots of people, when they think of gay people, all they have in mind is a pride parade. They don't have in mind people living ordinary lives, going to church, being a family.”
House wants readers to question their assumptions, not only about gay people but about fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, Southerners and country people.
“I want this to be a book that makes people think about nuance and complexity in a time when we see those things disintegrating in the national conversation,” he said. “I want them to think that people have the ability to evolve in their way of thinking on these issues. I know they do. I've seen it happen."