Rhodes’s first novel in more than 30 years (Rock Island Line, 1975, etc.) provides a welcome antidote to overheated urban fiction.
When folks have a drink in Words, Wis., it’s generally coffee or hot water with lemon that they turn to. When they cuss, they say “drat.” Life is slow and rural; it’s farm country, and locals care about the rhythms of the seasons, their roots in the community and each other. All is not well, however, when the milk cooperative tries to increase its profit margins at the expense of honest farmers. That doesn’t sit well with Grahm and Cora Shotwell, who try to expose the cooperative’s machinations. This is but one episode among many, however, in a deliberately episodic novel. The lack of a central narrative thread makes it possible for Rhodes to introduce us in stages to the community’s major players. We make the acquaintance of newly-minted pastor Winifred Smith, whose cryptic spiritual epiphany starts to inform every aspect of her life; of July Montgomery, who mysteriously showed up some 20 years ago and whose quiet devotion to farming conceals a tragic past; of Grahm’s sister Gail, who works in the local plastics factory and plays bass in a band; and of sisters Violet and Olivia Brasso, the latter an 89-pound invalid who’s emotionally rescued by roughneck Wade Armbuster through the unlikely medium of dogfighting. Things happen in Words, but in a decidedly slow way. Cora gets fired from her job, Winifred tries to explain the nature of her spiritual awakening, curmudgeonly Rusty Smith hires some Amish carpenters to finish up some work on his home. Most importantly, people learn to overcome their reticence, occasionally even opening themselves to the possibility of falling in love. Olivia recognizes the essential stability of the community by declaring that “new is only old rearranged.”
A quiet novel of depth and simplicity.