The Barnes family has lived in rural Beulah for generations, uniquely tied to
the spirit of the land. But life for them is gradually changing; their tale is
one of remembrance, frustration and loss. Lately this tight-knit family has been
folding in on each other, faltering, weighed down by questions of faith, commitment and love.
Mack Barnes has just been released from a two-week stay in hospital after battling depression. His mother, Rita, his wife, Jodie, and his two children, seventeen-year-old Taylor and twelve-year-old Kenzie, are finally looking forward to having Mack back at home. His breakdown, however, has set the family adrift. Jodie feels unmoored, left to cope with the day-to-day running of the home and forced to carry the emotional burdens; Taylor has become a goth, dressing in black, wearing makeup,
and preoccupied with the dead; and Kenzie is drawn to evangelism, hoping that her prayers to Jesus will be able to fix everything that is wrong with this family.
Only the steadfast Rita soldiers on, content to traverse the town in her beat-up old Ford Escort, doling out homemade soup to poor and disadvantaged seniors as though she were destined to live forever. The Barnes are like many Midwestern families, devotion to faith a large part of
their lives. But lately this family has been moving away from the comfort zone
of organized worship; Kenzie even comments that "no one in her family seems to have faith anymore."
The motion of church services feel distant to Jodie as she wrestles with resolving the past with the present. She and Mack were always on the brink, with the children "twirling off on their own tangents," and she admits she should have been better at understanding Mack's troubles without growing angry, sarcastic and vindictive.
Meanwhile, Mack's soul is tempered by a deep tiredness left over from days of tedious sessions with doctors and the tiny paper cups of colorful pills. He holds onto the memories of his brother, Alex,
and his father, Taylor, who died in a freak farming accident. He also cherishes the memories of being a good farmer, remembering the meanings of smells and tastes and temperatures, judging the air and earth. Mack aches to reconnect with Jodie, "to lie with her in well-remembered ways," but he also wants to " let things be and to be left alone."
Mack and Jodie must transcend the difficult territory of the past and learn to reunite with their children, particularly Kenzie who, embroiled in a type of spiritual warfare, finds herself attracted to a much older man, convinced that God's hand is guiding her every step. It is only the aged Rita who understands the specific pains and anxieties in Jodie and Max's life. She lost a husband and son to the same forces that now batter Jodie and Mack and the kids.
Wright's prose is subtle and intuitive as she progressively probes the details of her characters' domestic lives along with exposing the traditions of small-town farms that are steadily evaporating with the onset of modern life. In this world, families have lost their farms or have simply decided to leave farming for one reason or another. It is through Mack's eyes that we see the hard-bitten life of the farmer and understand that his life is not easy, whether it is a market that
has bottomed out or his struggles to keep things running while coping with a wife's illness.
Dwelling Places is an intensely contemplative, deeply affecting and very spiritual novel. Mack, Jodie, Rita, Kenzie and Taylor are all faced with difficult choices, especially Jodie, a woman undone by a clandestine affair, and Mack, who realizes that healing is possible, if not forgiveness. Full of twists and turns, heartbreaks and unexpected revelations, Dwelling Places is about the glimmer of memory and how it can gradually slip away and disintegrate, and also about contemporary faith and the place that faith can perhaps have in fractured and splintered lives.