A West Virginian author blends compelling characters, thrilling mystery, and Appalachian heritage in her new book.


At its core, Meredith Sue Willis’ latest novel from WVU Press, Their Houses, is about three people finding homes in West Virginia. Yet, from the very first paragraph, Willis makes sure readers know this story isn’t a typical nostalgic tale of building a life in the Mountain State. Certainly not for character Richie and his survivalist compound, which has “a helicopter pad and a safe room, an organic vegetable garden, a team of ex-militia patrolling the boundaries of his property, and a security system created by former Mossad operatives.” Seems just like the house right down the street, doesn’t it?

Their Houses expertly interweaves multiple timelines and character voices—particularly those of sisters Dinah and Grace and their childhood friend Richie. Growing up, Dinah and Grace lived in the carriage house behind Richie’s house, and the three bonded in the midst of their dysfunctional families. In fact, whether through crime, illness, or apocalyptic-esque preaching, every character in the novel is flawed. No one is the white knight waiting to vanquish the dragon, and that makes each of them utterly relatable.

The young sisters craft make-believe houses from shoeboxes but, even as adults, have yet to discover a place they feel at home. That’s not for lack of trying. From buying a run-down cottage with pilfered drug money to building a mountaintop fortress, the characters—like most of us—reveal they’re really just oversized kids at heart, trying to make West Virginia their shoebox.

There’s no mistaking this book for something other than West Virginian. References to hollers, hillbillies, and the Mountaineers pepper Willis’ near-poetic prose, but as effortlessly as perhaps only an author born and raised in the state can do. In one memorable scene, Dinah’s husband visits the mother he hasn’t seen in years. A true mountain mama, she berates her prodigal son, but pauses to fix his coffee and ask, “Do you prefer Sweet’N Low?”

For all that realism, readers might have to suspend their disbelief to accept the ex-domestic terrorism militia and darker underpinnings that thread several characters together. The main lesson, however, is a universal one: Home isn’t found in houses but rather in the people you share it with.

 

written by Jess Walker

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