“Their Houses,” by Meredith Sue Willis

Meredith Sue Willis

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The richly drawn characters in Meredith Sue Willis’s latest novel, Their Houses, are stumbling about in an effort to meet one of the most basic needs Maslow identifies in his famous hierarchy, a need which must be met before people can move on to find love, esteem, and self actualization. They are searching for safety in an unsafe world.

As children, Dinah, Grace, and their friend Richie quickly learn how perilous the world can be. Dinah and Grace lose their mother to psychosis and their father to alcoholism. Richie loses his father to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; and his mother is an immoral alcoholic. Although Dinah and Grace come from a poor family and Richie’s family is wealthy, the three bond as playmates who share the trauma caused by dysfunctional parents.

Richie’s father collects toy trains and has two rooms in the mansion filled with engines, villages, bridges, and toy people. Grace and Richie invent threats that the tiny figures must face: tornadoes, volcanoes and train wrecks, and then Dinah’s role is to “save the toy people from disasters.” To create a sense of security for herself and her sister, Dinah makes tiny matchbox “safe houses” for tiny treasures like acorns. The girls keep everything important in a trunk in case they have to make a quick getaway when their mother talks back to the voices in her head, voices telling her to kill her children.

All her life, Dinah has cast herself as a protector, first sheltering her little sister from their mother’s dangerous bouts of mental illness, then rescuing Richie from bullies, and finally homeschooling her brood of five children to save them from the outside world. Evil dwells beyond the walls of their home. Drugs! Sex! Tight jeans and television! She knows this only too well because of her own troubled adolescence. But after she is born again, she slams the door on that world. She turns to Jesus (who has all the answers), keeps a baby at her breast, and submits to her husband, an ex-con turned preacher. Sharing the responsibility of saving everyone with Jesus and her husband lightens her load. But what happens when those children reach adolescence and want to mingle with outsiders? Curiosity and hormones are calling loudly to Dinah’s oldest, Aleda, who becomes insistent about meeting people her own age.

Dinah’s husband Ray wants to bury his past through immersion in religion too. He served time for his role in a plot to blow up the FBI’s $200 million fingerprint facility in Clarksburg, West Virginia. (Willis drew on a real-life plot: in 1996, seven members of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia were charged with attempting to collect and transport explosive materials with the aim of destroying the facility.) Like Dinah, Ray finds the idea of starting fresh, of being washed of past sins, appealing.

Grace, a schoolteacher married to a doctor, appears to have a conventional life. Yet she fears she might have inherited her mother’s mental illness. She recovers from postpartum depression, but a move from a cozy cottage to a larger home in a new subdivision rocks the stability of her life and marriage. The loss of the cottage is too much to bear, so Grace secretly buys it. If only Dinah, who is coming to visit, would move into either the cottage or the new house, Grace would feel more secure. But where Grace needs to talk about the past, Dinah wants to bury it.

Richie, who “got his money the old-fashioned way” by inheriting it, also inherited the gene that gave his father ALS. Richie has gone through three wives and numerous lovers, but now that he faces the inevitable decline of this dreaded disease, he yearns to “recapture something he never really had.” Dinah. The one thing “that would save him.” The lengths he goes to in order to lure her back into his life seem absurd to anyone thinking rationally. But rational he is not. As an acolyte of Ayn Rand, Richie believes in selfishness, in obtaining his objectives.

These lives collide in two locations in West Virginia. One is Richie’s survivalist compound on an isolated mountaintop, where three locked gates, armed security guards, and a safe room with monitors covering every inch of the estate offer the illusion of safety. The other is the tiny community of Kingfield where Grace lives, a town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. The wise reader already knows which of these locations will finally offer a measure of peace and security to these troubled souls.

Through pitch-perfect dialogue and skillful selection of detail, Willis draws such realistic characters that they feel like the folks who live just down the road. Each speaks and thinks with a distinct voice. Two such voices belong to born-again preacher Ray and Grace’s doctor husband, David. Tension builds as Ray preaches a blessing at the dinner table referencing “Yearning to be saved from the great knife with the edge sharp as a razor!” and “Buckets of blood pouring out the doors of the great slaughterhouse!” When Dinah gets up from the table for privacy to nurse the baby, David, an avid proponent of breastfeeding, can be silent no longer:

 

David said, “Why is it that you feel a breast at the table is wrong, but you have no problem with images of violence at the dinner table?’

“But the words aren’t mine, Brother David. I am just an instrument when I pray.”

“Your god tells you to frighten little children?”

Raymond said, “Oh, Brother David, Jesus loves them all. He just wants to save them. I’m filled with a great sorrow, whenever I think that you and your beautiful family haven’t found Jesus. Jesus suffered more than any of us can ever know, and he suffered to make a place for you and me and all you have to do is accept it.”

“We don’t need saving, Raymond,” said David. “My family and I are making our way without your interference. Without buckets of blood.”

 

These brothers-in-law, their lives built around differing philosophies, are bound to clash whenever they are together. Willis skillfully allows dialogue to reveal their differences.

Even minor characters feel fully fleshed. One of the sassiest appears near the end as Richie’s potential caretaker. In the job interview, her attitude is on full display:

 

“I’ll get you a beer, but I’m not having one. I guess I want the job. I have a reputation, you know, for saying what I think. I’m not a hypocrite. Around here, everyone’s all ‘Jesus loves me’ on the front side and pure snake on the backside, but with Sally Savage what you see is what you get.”

He said, “Can you start tomorrow?”

“I can’t come till afternoon. I have to do something in the morning. Do you still want the beer?”

 

That Richie is going to hire Sally after such an apathetic interview—and is considering bedding her—creates delicious humor.

In Their Houses, Meredith Sue Willis has crafted a tender and haunting story about the different ways people deal with trauma. The novel demonstrates the very human need for community, for a place where people feel safe, surrounded by those they love. Even if, in the end, that safety is an illusion.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Willis teaches novel writing at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. She is the author of twenty-two books, including A Space Apart, Love Palace, Out of the Mountains, Oradell at Sea, and the Blair Morgan trilogy that begins with Higher Ground. She has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and has won awards such as the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the West Virginia Library Association Literary Merit Award, and the Appalachian Heritage Denny C. Plattner Prize for both fiction and nonfiction.

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