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In heartland, search for a deeper faith

The land is gone and the old way of life has vanished. Where can a farm family turn for a new set of answers?

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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."

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