What is it about Madison County this year?

At least three important North Carolina novels this year are set in that mountain county, which lies along the Tennessee line. Why all this literary attention to this isolated county, that is mostly known as the home of Mars Hill College, the site of the Civil War massacre at Sheldon Laurel, and the home of the practical political genius, Liston Ramsey, who served for eight years as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and was one of the most influential political leaders of the last century?

Two of these new novels, Ron Rash’s “The Cove” and Chapel Hill’s Terry Roberts’s “A Short Time to Stay Here” are set in Madison County during the time of the First World War. Both are connected to characters from a massive German interment camp in the county at the resort community of Hot Springs. Both books have gotten very good reviews.

The third of these Madison County novels will be featured on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend (Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home” is set in more recent times, the 1980s. But recent times in the mountains can take you a long way back from modern times in other parts of the state.

The novel, Cash’s first, has attracted favorable attention across the country, and critics are suggesting that he can already be included as one of North Carolina’s great writers.

Pamela Miller, writing in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul) about what she calls “a spellbinding debut,” explains, “The story draws you in like an undertow, lulling you one moment, horrifying you the next. It never overexplains or overjustifies, never tries to be more than a ripping good yarn, and for that reason, it succeeds at being a lot more.”

The novel revolves around the complex and conflicting attachments people in a small church feel towards their pastor as he speaks his version of God’s word. This pastor, guided by the words of Mark 16:18, leads his congregation into handling snakes and drinking poison to demonstrate and test their faith. The pastor attempts to bring God into miraculous healings using rough methods. Most of this preacher’s congregation follow him even when their activities fail and result in multiple deaths.

Three people resist the pastor. Nine-year-old Jess Hall, whose beloved autistic brother is a victim of the pastor’s attempted cures; Adelaide Lyle, the town’s midwife and loyal church member, who tries to protect the church’s children from the dangers of the pastor’s methods; and the local sheriff, Clem Barefield, whose common sense approach to law enforcement is frustrated by the pastor’s congregation’s protection of his criminal activities.

Jess, Adelaide, and Clem are not only major characters. They are also narrators. Cash uses their voices to tell his story. Each brings his or her situation and limitations into the storytelling, giving to the reader the rich challenge of figuring out what actually happened.

Although he now lives and teaches in West Virginia, Cash expresses deep love for “my native state of North Carolina, especially its mountains. I hope my love for this region is evident in ‘A Land More Kind than Home’s’ portrayal of western North Carolina’s people, culture, and religious faith. While ‘A Land More Kind than Home’ revolves around a young autistic boy who is smothered during a church healing service, the novel’s three narrators all represent my experience of growing up in North Carolina and being raised in an evangelical church.”

Don’t miss the chance to get to know the newest leading North Carolina writer when he visits North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.