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Dwelling Places: A Novel (Vinita Hampton Wright)
Vinita Hampton Wright
352 pp., $23.95
Lauren F. Winner
Trouble in the Heartland
You don't have to read very far in Vinita Hampton Wright's new novel, Dwelling Places, to conclude that all is not well. In the first six pages we learn that the patriarch of the Barnes family is dead, that the farm is "long since gone," that Mack, the elder and only surviving Barnes son, is wrapping up a stay at a mental hospital. Not to mention that widow Barnes's car seems to be on its last legsjust another stress in an already heavily burdened life.
The Barnes family of Beulah, Iowa, has been battered by the farm crisis of the late-20th-century. Taylor Barnes died a decade before the novel opens, in a farming accident that may not have been so accidental, after all. His younger son Alex was forced to sell his farm for a pittance, and subsequently drank himself to death. Mack realized he had to get out of farming, too, and he and his wife now work in town, though they still live, with their two teenage children, in the old family farmhouse. The unexplored grief of giving up a beloved way of life has taken its toll on Mack, and he has been sunk in a great, gray depression. Only his wife, heroic, strong Jodie, with the loving and occasionally co-dependent help of her mother-in-law Rita, is holding the family together.
Jodie, of course, is not as heroic and strong as she appears. Indeed, the subtleties of her character are the narrative and psychological strength of the book. She does hold the family together, but she begins to lose herself in the process. In the chaos of work at the school cafeteria, tending to the needs of her kids (one's gone Goth; the other has immersed herself in the youth group at the Baptist church), trying to reach her husband, making sure the bills are paidin the midst of all this, she notices that she's attracted to a co-worker, a teacher named Terry Jenkins. And she notices he's attracted back, and that his attentions and the attendant frisson feel good. After a little requisite hand-wringing"This is a bad idea. A really bad ...