Melinda Haynes, who was blessed with Oprah's Midas touch for her debut Mother of Pearl (Oprah Book Club selection, 1999), returns to small-town Mississippi in her latest novel Willem's Field. This is familiar territory for Haynes, who writes of the rural South with a keen eye. She is equally familiar with the geography of the heart the way it can clench tight like a fist or open up like a flower. Here, she paints a portrait of people feeling separate from, and at odds with, one another while showing just how connected their lives really are.
The novel opens as Willem Fremont, facing old age and battling anxiety attacks, makes his way to his childhood home in Purvis, Mississippi. In this small town, Haynes introduces a whole cast of characters, weaving together their lives with her trademark insight and compassion. Willem takes up residence at the Rocky Creek Inn, a motel run by Alyce, a struggling mother of two married to a good-for-nothing husband. Alyce, though lonely and overworked, loves her boys fiercely, and it shows in the small gestures that are the mark of a good mother. Upon his return, Willem soon discovers that his family land is in the hands of the Till family, with whom Willem's life becomes intertwined in ways he could never have imagined.
Eilene Till, "no bigger than a dress form," has had it with her two grown sons, who have both proven to be disappointments. She's even taken to feigning deafness just so she can either shout at or ignore them ah, life's simple pleasures. The obese Sonny, whose disposition is anything but, still lives at home and expends what little energy he has trying to avoid employment at least that of the lawful kind. Bruno, a Vietnam vet, who suffered a spinal injury in the war, now wears a confining brace that limits not only his range of movement, but also his range of emotion. The passion that he and his wife Leah shared, for life and for each other, is in its death throes, and they are at an impasse. Leah has taken on the role of tending to their farm, where seeds of resentment are being sown. To avoid facing the chasm widening between them, Leah completely throws herself into her work while Bruno retreats to a worn living room chair and a stack of old magazines. Watching them emerge from this is something to see, another testament to Haynes' ability to speak authentically of the inner workings of relationships.
Bruno is able to save his marriage because he learns that he must first be true to himself. Haynes writes, "He had forgotten how familiar he was with the land, how it felt like his skin. The terrain that had been faithful to itself, that would always be faithful to what it was."Relationships are resurrected in Willem's Field, and by the book's end you are cheering the characters on as they try to make their lives whole. Willem finds a new beginning, Leah and Bruno are reconciled, and Sonny, bless his big heart, well, there might be hope for him, too. Haynes' gift is that she digs down deep into the lives of these ordinary people and in the process makes you long for their happiness, or their redemption. In Willem's Field, Haynes gives new life to the tired adage "home is where the heart is." As Willem discovers, you can go home again, but the place to which you return will not be the place you left, and the journey won't be the one you expected. Katherine H. Wyrick, a former editor of BookPage, lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.