Funny, how Iowa's rich farmland seems such a breeding ground for calamity. At least, the novels set there don't tend to be comedies.
"A Thousand Acres" was hailed for its brilliance, but not so much its punch lines. (Although, to be fair, "King Lear" - from which Jane Smiley borrowed the plot - is not exactly known as a laugh riot. Adding hogs didn't do much to lighten the death toll.) This may be an inevitable side effect of the state's hosting one of the country's premier writing workshops: all that talent staring at all those cornfields.
Whatever the reason, there seems to be an understanding among authors that the apparently endangered species known as the American family farm is a setting for a tragedy, or, for those eternal optimists, a melancholy family drama. Author Vinita Hampton Wright has chosen the latter for her newest novel, Dwelling Places.
Wright opens with a homecoming party. That sounds like fun - except the guest of honor is coming home from a mental hospital.
Usually in these novels, the family fights to keep the land. But here, the farm - and several family members - are gone before the opening sentence.
The family patriarch, Taylor Barnes, was killed in a tractor accident that may not have been completely accidental; and one of his two sons drank himself to death after losing his portion of the land. The other son, Mack, suffered a collapse after he lost his farm, and is now returning to what's left: the house, a stone hunting cottage, and five acres.
Wright's poignant story shifts among the various family members as they try to put themselves back together after Mack's collapse.
Mack's 14-year-old daughter, Kenzie, believes that Jesus will fix everything if she just prays hard enough; her older brother, Taylor, lurches around town in full Goth get-up; Mack's wife, Jodie, is tired of carrying the load by herself and seeks out an affair; and Rita, Mack's stalwart mother, is busy and useful because she doesn't know any other way to be.
In the background are their neighbors, who have plenty of practice in recent years in responding to others' disasters. "Farmers in general aren't judgmental about a man who falls on hard times. They talk about him if he's lazy or a cheat or if he leaves his machinery out in the weather.... But all of them are too close to disaster on a seasonal basis to be very uppity about another man's misfortunes."
Wright has structured the book around the five verses of a hymn, "O Thou, In Whose Presence," and church life figures prominently in the novel. But for Mack and Jodie, churchgoing has become more of a comforting habit than a vital part of their spiritual life.
"Poetry, hymns, and prayers give a person stability by way of pattern and repetition. Do the meanings of the words even matter?" Jodie wonders.
For a long time, she says, "she tried to pretend, to turn nonsense and tragedy into some form of devotion, a spiritual lesson maybe. But with three deaths in the family, a sister-in-law and sweet niece and nephew lost to them now, Mack always on some brink, and the children twirling off on their own tangents, no spirituality Jodie has learned or even recited can justify, make sense, redeem, or offer wisdom."
Kenzie's faith is sincere, desperately so: She spends hours every day after school praying. "There're so many bad things that can happen at home, and they can happen so quickly, and their lives could change, and so how can she just hang out with Bekka at the mall?"
But as Kenzie herself comments, "spiritual warfare is a very tricky thing" - and the teen finds herself becoming dangerously attracted to both a fundamentalist cult and a 35-year-old man.
Wright is at her best when describing the vanishing traditions of a small farm town. Take her opening line, "In Beulah, Iowa, widow women all over town garden in the clothes of their deceased husbands.... 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."
Rita, Mack's mom, is one of those widows, and she has absorbed the lessons of farm life until they are second nature. For example, the grocer saves bruised and aging vegetables for Rita, who boils them into soup that feeds half the town's senior citizens.
Rita is an expert at rolling up her sleeves, as is Mack; part of his struggle is that hard work couldn't solve his family's problems.
As the novel progresses, he, like the rest of his family, searches for a new way to live. By the story's end Mack is rewarded, if not with peace, then at least with a glimmer of grace.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.