August 9, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Laura McHugh's Arrowood is a compelling and resonant literary thriller.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Lyrical prose and in-depth character studies examine the reliability of memory, punctuated by believable suspense and aided by a careful look at a small town."
Arrowood is set in the nostalgic landscape of my childhood on the banks of the Mississippi River, in a small Iowa town filled with crumbling nineteenth-century mansions and surrounded by cornfields. The protagonist, Arden Arrowood, is obsessed with the past and haunted by the disappearance of her sisters. While writing the first draft of the novel, in attempt to capture the mood and setting, I would listen to the music that took me back to my own childhood in southeastern Iowa.
I was the youngest of eight children, and my musical exposure in the late 70s and early 80s reflected the tastes of my older siblings. We lived in a two-story clapboard house on the river. It was built as a duplex in the late 1800s, but we punched through a wall to make one big house with a separate upstairs on each side, one for the boys and one for the girls. I slept on a foldout couch by the woodstove downstairs, and felt incredibly cool when I was allowed upstairs to hang out with the big kids, where music was always playing. My sisters listened to new wave and top 40 on the radio. My oldest brothers were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years older than me, and they collected rock and heavy metal on vinyl.
Blue Öyster Cult – "(Don't Fear) the Reaper"
This was one of my favorites from my brothers' records, and one of the earliest songs I remember. (It's also playing on the radio in one of my favorite horror movies, Halloween.) Every time I hear it, I'm drawn back to our old house and my brothers' room, which was papered with Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd posters (as well as the iconic image of Farrah Fawcett in a red swimsuit). I remember watching from the upstairs window as the river rose and brown floodwater swirled down the street, inching up our front steps. I wasn't scared.
Come on baby
(Don't fear the reaper)
Baby take my hand
(Don't fear the reaper)
We'll be able to fly
(Don't fear the reaper)
Baby I'm your man
Pink Floyd – "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II"
In 1979, I was the world's shyest, quietest, most obedient kindergartner, but as I went about my job as paste monitor, scooping out lumps of white paste for my classmates, I would be humming "Another Brick in the Wall" and feeling like a total badass. I didn't know all the words, but I knew these:
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
Hey teacher, leave them kids alone
Blondie – "The Tide Is High"
This song conjures up my older sisters as they were in junior high and high school: feathered hair, deep tans, flared jeans. They shared a room, their beds covered in faded Holly Hobbie sheets, though my sisters had long outgrown their infatuation with Holly. We would sit on the beds, listening to Casey Kasem count down the top 40 on the radio, and we cheered when Casey told us that "The Tide Is High" was number one in the nation.
The tide is high but I'm holdin' on
I'm gonna be your number one
I'm not the kind-a girl who gives up just like that, oh no
Jason Isbell – "24 Frames"
As I moved on from the first draft, I moved away from my nostalgic playlist and gravitated toward songs of regret, loss, grief, and ghosts. In the novel, Arden returns to her childhood home nearly twenty years after witnessing the kidnapping of her younger sisters, Violet and Tabitha, from their front yard. The Arrowood family fell apart in the intervening years, a long, proud legacy dwindling down to one young woman and the ghosts she can't let go.
Isbell's song made me think about how quickly and irrevocably Arden's life changed when her sisters disappeared on her watch. This one tragic event hastens her family's downfall, and everything Arden was sure of begins to crash down around her. This part of the song hits me every time I hear it:
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that's all for show goes up in flames
In twenty- four frames
Brandi Carlile – "The Things I Regret"
Arden blames herself for what happened to her sisters, and can't help wondering why she wasn't taken instead; maybe her family would have been better off had she been the one to disappear. So much guilt and regret has kept her from truly living her life.
I walk through my days like a ghost in a dream,
But the field carries on and my past follows me
It's hard moving on from the things you done wrong,
When they play in your head like an old fashioned song
But when you're wearing on your sleeve,
All the things you regret,
You can only remember what you want to forget
Bing Crosby - "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
Arden listens to a Bing Crosby Christmas album, one her father used to play over and over during the holidays at Arrowood. The nostalgic music brings back memories of the grand Christmas parties her parents would host before everything fell apart—and one party in particular, where Arden saw something she wasn't meant to see.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" always makes me tear up. The lyrics are minimal—only two repeating verses—but the song carries emotional weight. Old-fashioned holiday music makes me think of my grandparents, and Christmases at their house before we moved away and my grandpa died. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" stirs up the feeling that I don't have a true home to return to—it's there in the past, a tiny white house in a dying town that is no longer mine, a place that lives only in memory. I passed some of this grief on to Arden.
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
Shakey Graves (featuring Esmé Patterson) – "Dearly Departed"
I love this song, which makes me think of the ways we haunt each other, even while we're still alive. Arden is engaged in a bit of mutual haunting with her mother, who wants to leave the past behind; her first love, Ben, whom she has never forgotten; and Harold Singer, the man long suspected of taking the Arrowood twins.
You and I both know that the house is haunted
And you and I both know that the ghost is me
The Mountain Goats – "Up the Wolves"
I first heard this song on an episode of The Walking Dead, and it resonated. We all have ghosts that we carry with us. Arden is haunted by her own history, from the generations of Arrowoods who preceded her to her missing sisters, but if she can unravel the mystery of Violet and Tabitha's disappearance after all these years, she might have a chance to start over. There is hope that she can learn how to live with her ghosts and move forward after a lifetime mired in the dead space of the past.
There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet
No matter where you live
There'll always be a few things, maybe several things
That you're going to find really difficult to forgive
There's going to come a day when you feel better
You'll rise up free and easy on that day
And float from branch to branch, lighter than the air
Just when that day is coming, who can say, who can say?
Laura McHugh and Arrowood links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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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