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May 17, 2013

Book Notes - Virginia Pye "River of Dust"

River of Dust

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Set in China of the early 1900s, Virginia Pye's River of Dust is a haunting and vivid debut novel filled with fascinating, flawed characters.

Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:

"Virginia Pye's River of Dust is a remarkable novel in the ways that delight me the most: It has a compelling narrative voice, a dynamic story and a deep resonance into the universal human condition, all of which is inextricably bound together. This is a major work by a splendid writer."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Virginia Pye's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, River of Dust:

I wrote much of my novel River of Dust in a twenty-three day surge. I did all the usual things when not at my desk—ate, talked to friends, walked the dog, fed the kids—but with only part of my brain. My mind was off in China in 1910, the setting for the book. I had worked on a previous novel about the same characters, but hadn’t been able to sell it, and in the end decided to take two small parts from the beginning and the end and created River of Dust. The main characters had been with me so long, they were like a song you can’t get out of your head, and this allowed me to complete the new book in a burst of creativity.

I don't listen to music when I write, but music does work its way into the novel—slyly and through memory, like so much else in the story. On the playlist I offer, there are no Chinese tunes, no music from the nineteen-teens. Instead, the songs here are metaphors for the feelings, actions, and mood of the novel. The setting of River of Dust is a faraway place in the distant past. I hope it will stick to the reader like the dust swirling on the wind from the Gobi Desert that figures so largely in its pages.

The novel’s four main characters are the American missionaries I call The Reverend; Grace, his wife; Ahcho, the "house boy;" and Mai Lin, Grace’s maid and mid-wife. Drought and famine sweep over the land and desperate, violent actions occur. In the opening scene, Mongolian bandits kidnap The Reverend and Grace's young son. The wind picks up, loss fills the air, and the most fragile of the characters—Grace—reaches deep within herself to find the strength to survive. Another baby is born, innocents die, a beheading occurs and elephants fly--or not. All this spins out on the desert plains with the hallucinatory purple mountains in the distance and opium within easy reach.

The music I hear in my mind as I transport myself to that distant time and place are often songs of longing. Some still contain joy, while others reflect the desperation of a starving and lost people. Here’s how I break it down as the story unfolds:

River of Dust is set in Shansi Province, China and while that’s quite a distance from Salinas, California, the song that comes to mind is "Me and Bobby McGee" as sung by Janis Joplin. The upright Reverend and his wife have their son torn from their arms by the Mongolian bandits and nothing captures loss better than her line, sung in that throaty plangent voice: "I let him slip away…."

When the Reverend goes out in search of his son across the rough terrain, he encounters more trouble, in fact, double trouble, but he is a man of remarkable luck. Little Feat’s "Trouble" captures God’s "good-humored grace" which saves our hero from not one, but two disasters.

As Ahcho, the converted Christian, tries to find a rational solution to their dire situation, Hem’s "Burying Song" plays. In this reflective section, the reader has a chance to catch their breath and wonder whose version of the story is trustworthy.

When Grace accompanies the Reverend to chapel, she tries to keep her straying husband’s attention. Grace could sing a line from Joplin’s "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)": "I waited so long for someone so fine." The music rises in a frenzy as the Reverend’s sermon stirs both the church and his anxious wife.

Later, in a sorrowful haze, Grace watches her children return to her—their ghosts floating in with the hordes of Chinese peasants. It’s all quite pleasant, until she realizes she’s still alone. In "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," Fleet Foxes sing, "I don’t know what I have done. I am turning myself to a demon." The song softly fades in the same way that Grace quietly folds in on herself.

As Grace and Mai Lin break free of the mission compound and stroll into the marketplace, Joni Mitchell’s "All I Want" came to mind. "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/ Looking for the key to set me free." Grace feels freer than she has in some time. "I want to feel strong, I want to belong…" But of course, the moment of escape can’t last.

Meanwhile, the Reverend is out on the tundra at a Mongolian circus. This scene reminds me of a song by a young fiddle duo from New Orleans, Jubal’s Kin. In their tune, "Raleigh and Spencer," they wail about a town where the liquor has gone dry and all is lost. The ballad ends with the mournful promise that the singer has no choice but to lie down and die.

Grace waits by the window for her husband to return and Sufjan Stevens’s "For the Widows in Paradise" captures her longing. "If there's anything to say/ If there's anything to do/ I there's any other way/ I'd do anything for you." Grace would do anything for the Reverend, including risk her life.

Later, The Reverend, Grace, Ahcho and Mai Lin travel through the desert on donkey back. As they enter the misty foothills at dusk, Grace feels great love for her husband. Dylan’s "Girl From the North Country" is a perfect melding of setting, romantic love and longing, especially when Dylan sings it with Johnny Cash.

Back at the mission compound, Mai Lin watches over everything. She is a wise woman of strong opinions who does not suffer fools gladly. Like the old woman in Bonnie Raitt’s rendition of "Angel from Montgomery," Mai Lin has seen it all.

As Grace grows weaker physically, her spirit gains strength. The repeating syllables of Regina Spektor’s "Eet" mirrors Grace’s confused thoughts: "It's like forgetting the words to your favorite song./ You can't believe it; you were always singing along./ It was so easy and the words so sweet./You can't remember; you try to move your feet." Grace has forgotten a great deal, but something vital nonetheless grows inside her. Fleet Foxes’ song "Your Protector" starts slowly, the way Grace walks slowly on camel back into the desert, but then gains urgency. She knows now that she "runs with the devil."

Among other things, River of Dust is about religion and a loss of faith, but I’ve saved any overt Christian songs for late in the story when Ahcho finally speaks his mind. He holds fast to his beliefs and loves his Jesus; Neutral Milk Hotel in "King Carrot Flowers, Part Two," may or may not, but they sure wail about him just the same.

Into the desert Grace rides, her body filled with longing, determination and loss. No one sings pain like Patti Smith, especially in "Walking Blind." In a flashback to the Reverend’s night of terror and frenzy in a bleak hamlet, I hear the echoes of Neil Young’s "Four Dead in Ohio." This song remains a war cry through the years, reverberating as a warning all the way to this day. There are consequences to violence that cannot be escaped, even with time. The end of River of Dust finally rises up and Eric Clapton’s sweet voice singing "Tears in Heaven" are the best accompaniment I can imagine.

Virginia Pye and River of Dust links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

River City Reading review
Style Weekly review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Elizabeth Huergo interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
James River Writers interview with the authors
The Quivering Pen interview with the author
Richmond Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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