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 idea," she tells herselfJodie gives herself over to the "lawless pleasure" of an affair.
Wright's growth as a novelist has been exciting to watch. Her first novel, Grace at Bender Springs (1999), took readers to a Kansas town suffering through both literal and spiritual drought. The novel was edgier, a little less pat than most novels published by Christian houses. As Publishers Weekly reported, "Grace at Bender Springs had made it through the entire editorial process at Christian publishing house Multnomah and was ready to go to the printer when the company's executives decided at the 11th hour to pull the plug. Although the novel contained no foul language or explicit sex scenes, its realistic characters and dark tone made it a risk for the Christian market." The novel was picked up by Broadman & Holman and published to critical acclaim.
A year later, Broadman & Holman brought out Wright's second novel, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. One of many small-town Christian novels that came out that year, Velma departed from the familiar trajectory in which the culmination of the novel is someone's conversion. Velma, by contrast, explored a community of good Christian folk grappling with real sinin this case, rape and domestic abusein their midst.
As Velma Still Cooks in Leeway moved beyond the conventional conversion plot to the story of life after the altar call, so Dwelling Places eschews the traditional marriage plot, in which anxious courtship moves the novel forward and everything comes to a happy conclusion when the protagonists tie the knot. Dwelling Places is a story of what happens afterway afterthe wedding day. The town in which Wright has set her story is aptly named: Beulah means "married," and at the heart of this novel is the story of what happens in the belly of a loving, strained, frayed, tested marriage.
I am a fan of all of Wright's novels, but it is undeniable that each book has been better than the one before, each new novel more adroit and artful than the last. Dwelling Places is not didactic. The novel hardly suggests that adultery is a good antidote to marital woes, but Wright does not seem to think that her principal job as novelist is to heavy-handedly condemn or condone what she bluntly names as Jodie's sin. There is narrative sympathy here; the reader will find that she understands, if she doesn't approve of, Jodie's affair. Dwelling Places, in other words, is almost as complex as real life.
Wright has grafted her novel onto the old hymn "O Thou, In Whose Presence," and each of the book's five sections is keyed to one of the hymn's stanzas. As the hymn begins with an afflicted psalmist crying out to God but concludes finally with a joyful commitment to "hear and . . . follow Thy call," so too Dwelling Places begins deep in the valley but arrives at a happy ending. Or, at least, a relativelyhappy ending. Even as Jodie sticks to her decision to break things off with Terry, she second-guesses herself; even though she and Mack are making a go of things, Jodie realizes that she's "misplaced her heart, or maybe she's locked it away," and "until it comes back" her marriage won't be set aright. A local pastor creates a special worship service designed for families who have said goodbye to farming. The service is cathartic, healing in the best, truest, sense of the word; but Rita Barnes refuses to attend, and even for Mack and Jodie, one church service can't be a panacea.
Dwelling Places will inevitably be compared to Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. Both are finely grained family stories set in Iowa farm country. Jodie and Mack's marriage is reminiscent of Ginny and Ty's ordinary, flawed union, and Jodie's affair recalls Ginny's dalliance with the handsome prodigal son Jess. But whereas the precipitating crisis in Smiley's novel is sexual abuse, in Wright's it is the collapse of the rural farm economy. In the 1980s, due in part to high interest rates, low commodity prices, and the Reagan Administration's preference for directing dollars to big agribusiness, family farms failed throughout the Midwest. In 1979, Iowa was home to 121,000 small farms; by 2000, the number had dropped to 93,500. Unsurprisingly, child abuse, alcoholism, and divorce all rose precipitously in the Midwest farm belt during these years.
There is something refreshing about Wright's contextualizing her family saga in the wider social and political context of the farm crisis. This is not to say that sexual abuse is merely a private sin; Smiley, I'm sure, would quickly point out that it is embedded in the social problem of patriarchy. Nonetheless, the backdrop of widespread farm failure rescues Dwelling Places from the myopia that afflicts so many domestic novels.
An important subtheme in Dwelling Places is the failure of the local church to meaningfully respond to the farm crisis. The Barnes family had long been active in their local Methodist church, but the church was worse than useless when things started to go downhill. Jodie found the shame of being unable to contribute to the Sunday collection plate unbearable. Though bankers in the congregation were foreclosing against the farmers with whom they shared the pew, the pastor was silent. Rita Barnes finally called out Reverend Sipes, insisting that he had a moral obligation to chastise the "two deacons who've plumb taken advantage of every farmer in this county." In the face of Rita's righteous discontent, Sipes maintained that the bankers had broken no laws and that the town's economy was "not my business." After that conversation, Rita stopped volunteering at the church, and eventually the Barneses switched to the Methodist church in the neighboring town.
Without grinding an ax, Wright's damning portrayal of polite churchy obtuseness is undeniably prophetic, and will force Christian readers to ask whether their own church community is keeping mum about the farm crises in their own backyard.
Lauren F. Winner is the author most recently of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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