'Heart Spring Mountain' is challenging, rewarding
By Michael F. Epstein
In her first novel, "Heart Spring Mountain" (ECCO, 2018), Robin MacArthur returns to the rural woods, creeks, and hills of southeastern Vermont that were the setting for her PEN/New England award-winning short story collection "Half Wild." That land provides the stage upon which events from the intimate, familial and personal to the global — war, climate change, and the opioid crisis — affect the lives of people living far off the grid.
The setting is Nelson, Vermont, a stand-in for what appears to be Vernon, nestled quietly in the rolling hills and deep woods of the tri-corner area where New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the Green Mountain State meet. The characters, introduced gradually over the first third of the book, are six generations of three families scratching out a living on hardscrabble Heart Spring Mountain. The time leaps back and forth from the Vietnam War and hippie communes of the 1970s to the Iraq war, the opioid crisis, and Hurricane Irene of 2011. The characters who we first meet as young, idealistic, hopeful twenty-somethings are by the book's end dead or old and broken. Hope lives on, however, in two third-generation cousins, Vale and Danny, damaged, scarred, but resilient and re-discovering their ideals and dreams after returning to Heart Spring Mountain, drawn back by a sense of place and family.
This is not an easy book. The story is unremittingly bleak, with death and destruction everywhere. The characters are often unlovable and even unlikable. The weather is terrible and the food worse. And MacArthur makes the reader work hard to put together the pieces of what amounts to a three-dimensional jig saw puzzle of a story. She uses short, choppy chapters, each providing a small piece of the story through a brief glimpse of one character at one time in one place. She gradually builds the narrative until by somewhere in the middle of the book, the attentive reader has all the information necessary to put it all together. Time, person, and place all finally crystallize, and the reader is totally engaged. I found that using pencil and paper to graphically represent the several family trees with names, ages, and relationships was necessary for me to able to figure out who Deb, Hazel, Lena, Lex, Stephen, Bonnie, Vale, and Danny were and how they were all related.
Once oriented, however, I was hooked, and the final third of the book swept me along towards the complicated and ambiguous conclusion of the story. This is not a post-modern novel where the hand of the author is largely invisible, offering few clues and directions, but clearly in control. Rather, MacArthur depends on the reader's willingness to understand and sort through the facts in much the same manner as her description of a 1985 French cinema classic "Vagabond" which she introduces into the book. The setting has Deb and Vale spending an evening watching a VHS tape of the movie. They are taking a break from their search for Vale's mother, Bonnie, swept off a bridge in Nelson at the height of Irene's flooding. The movie tells the story of a young woman wandering around France taking odd jobs and gradually declining until she is found frozen and dead in a countryside ditch. While the movie parallels the action in the book in many ways, MacArthur likely chose 'Vagabond' to provide the reader with some hints about her own narrative style.
The narrator describes the movie as follows: "The cuts are elliptical — the moments strung together without smooth transition. You have to do the work yourself — piece together the life of Mona." This is exactly what MacArthur expects of her readers — to piece together the lives of Vale, Danny, Stephen, Hazel, Bonnie and the others from the 'elliptical cuts' she provides in the 72 chapters, none longer than four pages.
Interestingly, while nearly all of the chapters are told from the third-person, all-knowing narrator viewpoint, the chapters about Lena are told in the first person. Lena is the free-spirited, vaguely feral sister of Hazel, mother of Bonnie and grandmother of Vale, who lives alone in a rough camp up the hill with her tame owl, Otie. Lena dies after childbirth, delivering Bonnie whose father is her sister's husband. Why the first person narrative for Lena, alone? Does MacArthur most closely identify with this character or is this just another way of distinguishing this unique and powerful individual?
MacArthur forces the reader to confront important issues in this novel — war, drugs, climate change, eugenics, ethnic cleansing, and even the esoteric topic of epigenetic influences on heredity. The Korean War leaves Lex with PTSD. Stephen cuts off a finger tip to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. Neko leaves a promising relationship with Vale to return to photograph the horrors of the Iraq War. Bonnie is addicted to heroin and oxycodone and is high when she wanders out into Irene, never to be seen again. Stephen has consumed a bottle of whiskey before he freezes to death in Lena's old camp. Hurricane Irene is but one manifestation of a world-wide climate change brought on by fossil fuel consumption, when, ironically, Hazel, Deb, and the others heat their homes with wood and are largely off the electric grid. The history of the Abenaki tribe in Vermont and the forced sterilizations of the eugenics movement in the 1930s are introduced through Vale's great-grandmother, who was a Native American.
But the main reason for reading this first novel is that Robin MacArthur has a good eye, a fine voice, and has developed a relationship with a part of the country that, like Faulkner, she is prepared to dig into in great depth and detail. Nelson, Vermont is her Yoknapatawpha County and she skillfully sets a scene and sets her fully developed characters into motion in this space, exploring important themes and issues of our time. This is a book worth reading written by a Vermont author whose future work I'm already eager to see.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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