In Melinda Haynes's novel WILLEM'S FIELD, two unrelated sets of people deal with different life issues, but find common ground as their stories unfold and converge into one. Willem Fremont is the first character introduced in the story --- the pivotal character in WILLEM'S FIELD, which all the others revolve around. Willem is an older man who has been through his share of panic attacks. In this dark comedy, he begins the journey back to his hometown of Purvis, Mississippi in search of a cure. Willem feels that whatever happened to him to cause these horrid attacks had to be associated with his childhood home. He will find out what it is, even if it kills him.
Willem's problems are based on his fears of the oddest things. He seems to panic over things that wouldn't bother the average person. He will find his heart racing at the slightest odd movement, or he will feel faint at the slightest odd thought that enters his head. In the opening chapter, a dangling decorative paper crown hanging from the doorway of a roadside restaurant causes Willem to panic and, to the horror of the patrons, he runs from his dining table to the doorway and begins to scream. What follows is not a pretty sight.
Totally aware of what he is doing, Willem is embarrassed, but he does not seem to have any control over what he does during these attacks. He takes his pills and hopes for the best. Whatever the reason for his panic attacks, Willem is getting tired of this type of life and is desperate to live the rest of his life in peace.
In the meantime, the members of the Till family are living their lives as only they can, back in Purvis. They happen to be living on the Fremonts's property, but because the land had been abandoned for decades, the Tills, who lived on the adjoining property, took over the taxes and ownership of the land. Leah is the wife of Bruno Till; he and his brother have always seemed to, in one way or another, disappointed the women in their lives. Leah spends her days working the farm because Bruno had suffered an injury back in Vietnam. He wears a neck brace and cannot do much of anything, including sex, because of it. Leah goes about her duties without any complaints. Someone has to do the work and she is the only one available to do so.
Bruno's brother Sonny, on the other hand, has it made. Not knowing the concept of work, Sonny lives at home with his mother Eilene, sleeping as much as possible and doing whatever he can to avoid work. Eilene, to get even with both boys, pretends she is deaf and has her boys yelling at her to make sure she hears every word they say. Their conversations typically end up as yelling matches, with Bruno suspecting that their mother CAN hear them just fine, but Sonny is totally in the dark. Eilene prays for the day when Sonny gets a job or finds a wife, neither of which seems very likely from the looks of things.
A pivotal point in the story occurs while Leah is off looking for a missing cow. Leah falls into a ravine and finds not only the cow (now deceased) but a magical place hidden from the world above. It is complete with wildlife and trees and running water. It also comes with a house that had obviously long been abandoned. Leah goes back often to visit this hidden place, and it is where the story of Willem and the Tills intersect.
The story can at some points seem rather convoluted. With so many subplots and a number of quirky characters, not to mention a storyline that goes back and forth between Willem's story and the Tills, the reader may find at first that there seems no real point to the book. With patience, as this reviewer found out, readers will be rewarded with one of the best novels to be released in 2003. Melinda Haynes does a wonderful job painting the picture of loneliness and hopelessness, and living out life in a small town like Purvis. But, at the same time, she uses dark humor to bring out the interesting personalities of the characters she has created. This is one of those rare books that I may actually want to read again.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on April 30, 2003