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December 5, 2013

Book Notes - Jessica Stilling "Betwixt and Between"

Betwixt and Between

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.

Jessica Stilling's Betwixt and Between is a poignant and powerful retelling of Peter Pan, a modern and literary exploration of love and loss.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"At turns happy and unbearably sad, Betwixt and Between is a beautifully realized reimagining of a classic story that will enchant readers as the original did."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Jessica Stilling's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Betwixt and Between:

Betwixt and Between is a novel about loss and childhood and while the plot focuses on the death of a child, Betwixt and Between explores many other aspects of loss of childhood - like growing up. Betwixt and Between is also a take on a fairy tale, Peter Pan, and I wanted to capture the magic of fairy tales, the shattering of the laws of physics, the deep sense of mystery and sense of adventure that is being a boy who will never grow up, while juxtaposing it with the tempered, the rational real world. As I was writing this book I thought a lot about my own children and while the thought of losing them to something like death is too terrifying to even consider when I'm being a sane, rational human being (though as a writer there are many times when I feel neither sane nor rational), but the loss of my son and daughter to kindergarten, to high school and college to marriage and family, that's a very real thing and while those will be happy occasions as well, they will also tear my guts out in their own way. Then I look back at my past, at my own childhood and growing up process, I see that music was a big part of it. Music runs through all our lives, especially our childhoods. I started playing guitar in junior high and honestly thought that instead of a writer I'd become a rock star. It turns out I have the sense of rhythm of a toadstool but there is something about the passion of music, the sense of freedom it gives you that makes growing up a little bit easier.

"Forever Young" - Bob Dylan
To start off we need the sad, slow first side version. Honestly here you might also put "House at Pooh Corner" or "Butterfly Kisses," The Grateful Dead's "I Will Take You Home," Oasis' "Little James," you might add the Rod Stewart version of "Forever Young." I could populate this playlist with songs musician parents have written to their children, about their children's childhoods, but this book is about so much more and I'd like to explore further. Though honestly this, Bob Dylan's" Forever Young," I find, is the best song, perhaps the best piece of art on this subject. It captures it perfectly. No need to say more.

"Mummer's Dance" - Loreena McKennitt
I find that it is hokey to talk about the songs you listened to, that you actually listened to, while writing something. People don't actually do that, right? Play a song over and over again while writing, maybe before or after, to cure writer's block, to come down from the whole writing process, but yeah, that's what I did with this song. Not while I was writing the entire book, just during the concentrated Peter Pan and Wendy Neverland chapter. While there had been chapters taking place in Neverland before, in that chapter I really needed to capture the mystery of Neverland, of Peter Pan and who he was as a boy (who is in some ways very much a man) and as a magical creature. This song is so powerfully magical. It's about running through the woods, meeting Celtic Gods, being one with nature. Everything about it screams the Neverland I wanted to create. I had it on repeat for months.

"Blossom" - Ryan Adams
This song reminds me of being lost. I picture not having anyone to come home to, anyone to love you and so you have no basis, no starting point, to navigate what it means to be a human being. This song reminded me of the Lost Boys, of all the people (children and grownups alike) who are stuck in Neverland because in this life they just ended up wandering. It is about being taken care of, finally being taken care of, and the power of love.

"Cosmic Love" - Florence + the Machine
Maybe this is just my current favorite love song, or my current favorite song, but this song really spoke to the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy. This isn't just any love song, there's a sadness, a bitter sweetness to it. Peter Pan and Wendy's love is so strong that it spans life and death itself and yet that isn't enough. And if that isn't enough I don't know how Peter Pan so bravely faces eternity.

"Broken Arrow" - Robbie Robertson
Who knew the guitarist for The Band could sing, but he can, pretty well, he also plays a pretty mean guitar, which he showcases well throughout this self-titled album. I chose this song because it could be a love song between lovers, or from a parent to a child or from a child to a parent or between friends. "Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow/Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain/There he goes moving across the water/There he goes turning my whole world around." Only in the context of this song do those lines become so unbelievably sweet and touching.

"Sarah" - Bob Dylan
Yes, this is directed more toward the loss of a wife, a marriage, than a child, but the loss is still profound, it is still all consuming. Not only does Dylan seem to be lamenting the end of his marriage, he's also lamenting the end of his children's young childhoods, "Them playing leapfrog and singing about Snow White." A part of his life has ended, not to death, but to growing up, and nothing will ever be the same. That's true of all parents, like Mrs. Darling who is lucky enough not to lose a child in this book, but instead whose children grow up. Yes, it is nice when your children grow up, but it is also sad, you lose something, a part of your life that had been so significant ends, as this song so clearly captures.

"Cast No Shadow" - Oasis
The entire point of Peter Pan is that he casts a rather important shadow, but this song is about a little more than that. It's about a man who is missing something, something that has been taken from him via circumstances, there isn't even a "they" who has taken them really and that is the Peter Pan in my book. In many ways he's the luckiest boy in the world, but being a boy who never grows up forever, especially after you have "grownup" in your own way and found the love of a girl, can make things difficult. While Peter definitely casts a shadow before meeting Wendy, he seems to have lost it afterward.

"Not With Haste" - Mumford and Sons
This song reminds me most of Claire, Preston's mother in the real world. In many ways it is her journey of self discovery that we're watching as she goes from a grieving pile of tears to a strong and resilient woman who is able to come to the defense of other children even as her own child is lost to this world. "I will love with urgency and not with haste," captures Claire's psyche as we watch her mourn her son and learn from her experiences.

"Growin' Up" - Bruce Springsteen
At first glance this does seem obligatory, but it's more than that. It's not just the topic of this song, which does so perfectly capture what it means to grow up, going first from the awkwardness of junior high "I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade/I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade" to the freewheeling being-on-your-ownness of just after high school "And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car." It is not just the lyrics to this song that capture growing up, the kind of growing up Peter (and Preston) will never truly do, the kind of growing up that is so hard, so troubling and so incredibly wonderful, it is the incredible surging energy of this song that celebrates growing up.

"Tears in Heaven" - Eric Clapton
I didn't want to do this. It's too descriptive, too heart-wrenching, too much, but not only is this song actually about the death of a child, but it captures the kind of bittersweet sadness of Neverland. The soul of this song is that there is something more, that maybe, just maybe Claire and Matthew will see Preston again, not in Neverland, but in the After. It is a song about hope and I dearly wish that my readers find hope, they find redemption, they find life in this story.

And perhaps "Forever Young" - Bob Dylan, the second side, more upbeat, life affirming and celebratory version.


Jessica Stilling and Betwixt and Between links:

excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Publishers Weekly review


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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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