Charles Dodd White’s latest novel, A Shelter of Others, is a story of regret, redemption, love, anger, and the frailty of memory. It’s about the struggle between what is expected of us, what we offer to those who need us, and what is left after. It’s also a potent tale about people who create makeshift families and improvised alliances, clumsily attempting to care for one another, negotiating everyday survival the best they can.
The center of A Shelter of Others resides in Lavada Laws, an Appalachian woman who finds comfort in routine, in caring for others, particularly her father-in-law, Sam. Sam’s memories are muddled, the result of creeping dementia; without his medication, he’s unpredictable, like a child. Caring for him is nearly all Lavada can do, leaving her little time to even find work to support the both of them. Still, she somehow manages to maintain a decent existence.
The situation is further complicated when we learn Lavada’s husband–and Sam’s father–Mason has been in prison, but she has not visited him during his two year sentence. Despite the fact that she no longer has a traditional relationship with her husband, she remains devoted to her father-in-law. Part of the reason behind her faithfulness to Sam is her love for him, but it also seems there’s more to it than that. Lavada herself realizes her own compulsion to care for others, often at the neglect of her own well-being.
As the story begins, Mason has been released from prison, where he’s been serving a sentence for running pills. He doesn’t want to think about what he’s lost, wants to remain unseen. He feels an empty sorrow he doesn’t understand, essentially choosing to live outside time, working odd jobs for one old man and caring for another one, avoiding Lavada. A deep divide also exists between Mason and his father, the result of a troubled relationship. Sam was a distant parent, neglecting his son in favor of a career as an English professor.
A Shelter of Others is a novel populated with stark acts of hurt, kindness, and beauty, often coming from the places they’re least expected. There are no easy answers here, which is one of this novel’s greatest strengths. As the novel progresses, White’s elegant and meditative prose draws us further into these people’s troubled lives, painting them with surprising, beautiful details that show us precisely how these characters see themselves in relation to the world around them. And as these people orbit each other, moving ever closer, we inevitably wonder what will happen when their paths do finally cross. The results are rarely what we think they will be.
Charles Dodd White is the author of the story collection Sinners of Sanction County, the novel Lambs of Men, and co-editor of the Appalachian short story anthology Degrees of Elevation. A Shelter of Others releases in June 2014.