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Dwelling Places: A Novel

Dwelling Places: A Novel

4.0 4
by Vinita Hampton Wright

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Mack and Jodie have no idea how much their lives are going to change when they decide to give up farming. Mack is hospitalized with depression, Jodie finds herself tempted by the affections of another man, and their teenage children begin looking for answers outside the family—Kenzie turns to fundamentalist Christianity, and Taylor starts cavorting with Goths


Mack and Jodie have no idea how much their lives are going to change when they decide to give up farming. Mack is hospitalized with depression, Jodie finds herself tempted by the affections of another man, and their teenage children begin looking for answers outside the family—Kenzie turns to fundamentalist Christianity, and Taylor starts cavorting with Goths. Told in the unforgettable voices of each family member, this powerful story of family life reveals the stubborn resilience of love and how sometimes the very thing we're looking for has been waiting at home all along.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this extraordinarily well-observed, contemplative novel, Wright focuses on a present-day Iowa family reeling from one tragedy after another. Its matriarch, Rita Mae Barnes, copes with the loss of her husband, son and farm by taking care of everyone around her. Her surviving son, Mack, struggles with depression serious enough to warrant a stay in a psychiatric hospital, while his desperately tired wife, Jodie, attempts to raise their children and support the family in his absence. It's not an easy task: their 14-year-old daughter, Kenzie, becomes enamored of a Christian cult and a mentally ill 35-year-old man, and their 17-year-old son, Young Taylor, slouches around town in full goth attire, baiting local law enforcement and loitering at the cemetery. Despite the bleakness of these circumstances, Wright manages an astounding level of honesty and plenty of wry humor without falling into the nihilism that pervades A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to which this story bears an intriguing resemblance. And unlike the bulk of Christian fiction, in which characters travel predictable paths to wholesome happy endings, this novel eschews hackneyed pietism in favor of an authentic portrait of people who do not completely regret their mistakes and are still learning how to accept God's consolation. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tedious domestic saga chronicling the demise of an Iowa farm family. After spending several weeks in a mental hospital for suicidal depression, 43-year-old Mack Barnes is coming home to his farmhouse near the town of Beulah. The stoicism practiced in traditional farm communities has not equipped anyone to deal with this unsettling development. Mack's wife Jodie, who works in the local school's cafeteria, is ambivalent about his homecoming; she feels that she has been blamed for his bouts of erratic behavior, and she worries about protecting their two children. Dutiful daughter Kenzie, 14, is veering perilously toward Christian fundamentalism. Her 17-year-old brother, Young Taylor-named after the deceased Barnes patriarch who died ten years earlier in a questionable machine accident-dresses in lugubrious black garments and wears creepy makeup. Widowed grandmother Rita, who now lives in Beulah, won't discuss the suspicious details of husband Taylor's accident. She still grieves over the loss of the working farm: though Mack tenuously inhabits the homestead, he makes his living as a mechanic; the portion of land inherited by his younger brother Alex is long gone, lost as he descended into alcoholism. Mack's deep-seated issues require medication that ruins his sex life with his wife. Jodie, recognizing that he's "still fighting battles that have little to do with her," finds a willing admirer at school and embarks on a satisfying affair. Meanwhile, no one monitors the comings and goings of the children, who slip into social vagrancy. The author creates strong, understated characterizations and a sense of enormous drama as secrets periodically erupt. But Wright (Velma Still Cooks in Leeway,not reviewed, etc.) could have been more selective with the details of her ponderous tragedy, which unravels in interminable increments. Lambasted with misery, readers may well miss the intended message of Christian transcendence.

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Read an Excerpt

Dwelling Places

A Novel
By Vinita Hampton Wright

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Vinita Hampton Wright
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060790806

Chapter One

Coming Home

Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways that God would lead us to that blessed promised land;
But he guides us with his eye, and we'll follow till we die,
For we'll understand it better by and by.
By and by, when the morning comes, when the saints of God are gathered home,
We'll tell the story how we've overcome, for we'll understand it better by and by.
-- "When the Morning Comes"


In Beulah, Iowa, widow women all over town garden in the clothes of deceased husbands. From a distance, they often look like small-framed men. They keep their husbands' clothes because it's wasteful to throw away hats and shirts that still have wear in them. They wear the clothes in memory of the men they have survived, even after the scent of them has been laundered away.

It was a full year after her husband's death before Rita Barnes could wear his clothes. Nearly ten years have passed since Taylor died, and Rita is stretched out on their double bed this morning, naked, because it was humid last night and because she's sixty-six and does what she pleases. She is mentally searching her pantry for cream-style corn, because her son Mack is coming home from the mental hospital today, and his wife Jodie is cooking a nice dinner for him, and a nice dinner for the Barneses always includes Rita's corn casserole. She's also promised chicken and homemade noodles. It will take some time to make the noodles, so maybe she should haul her bones off the bed now.

She stops at the bathroom, rinses her face, combs her hair, and puts in her dentures. In ten minutes she is at the kitchen table, taking some raisin toast with her coffee along with vitamins. The automatic coffeemaker that Mack and Jodie got her for Christmas five years ago is possibly one of the best gifts of her lifetime. She can go smoothly into her day, not even having to count scoops of coffee but leaving the waking-up process to the drinking itself.

By ten-thirty, the noodles are made and ready to throw in with the chicken, and Rita's house is cleaner than it needs to be. The farmhouse, where Mack's family now lives, is still the family center, just as it was when Rita and Taylor lived there. It turns out that Rita's status as mother of the family was not the main reason her home was the hub all those years. The house itself, large and functional and not very beautiful, is what compels them all to congregate. Rita figured that out a year or so after Taylor's passing, when she moved to town and a smaller place. The kids stop by every day, but they don't circle around and land at her little house in town the way they always did at the farm. She doesn't mind that as much as she expected. It's been nice to have privacy, or at least what passes for privacy in Beulah.

On her way out the door to make what she has come to call her "P&P run" -- the nearly daily trip to the post office and pharmacy -- she grabs two packages of heat-and-serve dinner rolls from the top of the fridge. They're for the party tonight. Jodie likes to have everything on hand several hours ahead of time. The trip out to the farm, also, is a daily event for Rita.

But her day goes south when she turns the ignition key. The engine whines but won't turn over -- for the third time this week. She huffs at the little car and tries again. She tries six times and then quits for a minute, feeling warm from the sun that surrounds her in the driveway.

Amos from next door comes out and stands in his drive just a few yards away. He puts his hands on his hips, which always looks funny when Amos does it, although Rita can't figure out why.

"Givin' you trouble again," he says, nodding toward the front end of the car. "Of course. On a day when I really need to go somewhere."

"You're always needing to go somewhere." Amos smiles a little. He's so old and wrinkled that it looks like a wince.

"But some days it's not that important. Mack'll be home this evening."

"Will he? Well, that's just wonderful. I'm sure you're all happy about that."

"Yes, we are." She turns the key again and listens to the engine strain but not start.

"How old's this car?"

"Nearly eleven years. Taylor bought it for me just a few months before he died."

Amos looks impressed. "That's a real long time for a car to run without a lot of trouble."

"I know. Shouldn't complain, I guess."

"Have Tom Longman look at it."

"I probably should." She tries one more time, and the Ford comes to life grumpily. She raises her eyebrows at Amos. "Now that it's started, I better do all the running around I need to."

Mack's coming home. This is the thought she woke up with, and she's come around to it again at least twenty times. When her son's name flickers across her mind, something tugs at Rita from inside. It's a sensation that has visited her often since the first time her first child moved in the womb. During pregnancy, from the core of Rita's body would come a soft stirring -- an echo, really, of the actual movement -- and her whole self would huddle around that feeling, because every nerve ending seemed to understand that Rita was destined forever to have a center to her life that wasn't even her life. She and Taylor Barnes made a little baby way back when, and Rita hasn't for a day or an hour since felt that she is the focus of her own life. Over the years, as her children . . .


Excerpted from Dwelling Places by Vinita Hampton Wright Copyright © 2005 by Vinita Hampton Wright. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vinita Hampton Wright, a novelist and editor who conducts creative writing workshops at conferences and retreats around the country, is the author of the novella The Winter Seeking and the novels Velma Still Cooks in Leeway and Grace at Bender Springs, as well as numerous nonfiction titles.

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Dwelling Places 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and shared it with several others. Its one that I have thought about again and again. Inspiring stories of struggle and loss. I think its humanity was how I connected. Bought the book after hearing an interview with the author on NPR.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kept waiting for it to start.
Jade1213 More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed a lot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago