In this insightful novel that takes place after the loss of the land the Barnes family has farmed for six generations, Vinita Hampton Wright touches that most basic human predicament, known as far back as the first parents and homesteaders, Adam and Eve. Griefs come to us all --- as universally and yet as personally as fingerprints.
Though written in third, not first, person, the story unfolds from alternating viewpoints of four of the five Barnes family members. There's Rita, a widow who has moved off what's left of the farm and into town --- that being the fictitious Beulah, Iowa, not far from Oskaloosa. She's a good Christian woman, who every Monday "scavenges the produce that is beyond selling at regular price" so she can make soup for "half a dozen other old folks." (As a character, she's also a most interesting mother-in-law.)
Rita's husband, Taylor, died ten years ago, in a freak farm-field accident. Or was it maybe not an accident? --- wonders her middle-aged son, Mack, who lives in the original farm house, having sold off most of his land, given up farming, and taken a job at a machinery store in town. Maybe his dad was intentionally careless, thinking his family needed life insurance money more than they needed him. The tragic loss of his father only compounds that of another absent figure. Who knows what demons had driven Mack's only brother Alex to drink and self-destruct?
As the story starts, Mack has a lot on his mind. Armed with a parcel of prescription medicines, he's just being released from a psych ward, where he's been treated for suicidal despair. He's coming back home, oblivious to the precarious mental states of other family members. His wife Jodie, stretched to the limit, trying to hold the family together, is increasingly attracted to and aware of the workplace attentions of "another man." His fervently pious and devout 14-year-old daughter Kenzie is spending hours after school praying at the altar rail of First Baptist Church. But where is her spiritual path really leading her? Then there's his 17-year-old son, known as Young Taylor. Troubles here are more obvious; he's taken to wearing all-black clothing and white face makeup. Should Mack be as worried about Young Taylor as Mack's mother is?
Some of the interesting family dynamics draw on that very topic of worry and responsibility. Who's worried about whom and why? Who's responsible for what and whom, and to what extent?
The lead character in this story is Mack, but Wright thoroughly develops the personalities and inner lives of all the family members, bringing each, separately, to a personal, age-appropriate crisis. Ultimately Wright brings the family from the brink back to a centered hope and a faith, lived maybe not victoriously but with a tempered affirmation of possibilities. Chapters open with epigrams taken from old hymns, and the last chapter significantly starts with a question: "Is not this the land of Beulah?"
DWELLING PLACES is clearly the story of the Barnes family, but the stage-set is larger than a family farm. What happens to community dynamics when the banker and the farmer attend the same church? What healing can a church community effect when members gather to acknowledge the reality of their losses?
This novel includes some adult themes and is not for readers who need light, airy plotlines. But if you're looking for complex characterizations, a satisfying read, and possibly needing something to draw out a few tears --- mourning your own collection of personal griefs --- I highly recommend DWELLING PLACES.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on January 31, 2006