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August 31, 2017

Book Notes - Molly Patterson "Rebellion"


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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Molly Patterson's novel Rebellion is an ambitious debut spanning 100 years and two continents.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A talent to watch, Patterson manages to travel broad swaths of history and geography while creating intimate moments with a refreshing lack of sentimentality; and the novel's sense of adventure makes it addictive reading."

In her own words, here is Molly Patterson's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Rebellion:

My novel, Rebellion, covers a lot of ground, moving from China to the States and spanning more than a century. When you’re writing historical fiction, music can be one of the best tools you have to capture a particular time and place. I hadn’t even realized how many songs I referenced by name in the book until I sat down to make this play list, but it makes sense: the specificity of a single song can do a lot of work setting the scene. Even when your reader doesn’t know the song, titles alone can be helpful. The songs I’ve chosen here are a mixture of those referenced in the book, those that are resonant of a particular time or place, and those that accompanied my writing over the course of nearly seven years.

Pearl Jam – “Last Kiss”

My novel opens with a stand-alone chapter called “Driving, 1999” that introduces one of the main characters, Hazel, near the end of her life. As with many elderly people, driving is important to her as a symbol of her independence, but it’s also potentially treacherous. Pearl Jam’s version of “Last Kiss” was one of the songs of the summer in 1999. I remember hearing it everywhere on the radio that year. The earlier version of the song—a 1960s hit by J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers—is roughly contemporaneous with Hazel’s storyline later in the book. All that, and it’s a song about a car accident: I couldn’t resist.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young – “Our House”

The house that Hazel lives in until the last years of her life has an important place and history in the novel—it was a one-room cabin when her parents first married and moved to the farm, and over the years they changed, added onto, and even moved it in order to suit the changing needs of the family. I based the house on my maternal grandmother’s, which had a similar history of transformation. Even as it changes in the book, however, the house is a still point on the landscape, representative of the domestic sphere, and standing in contrast to the geographical movement that Louisa’s sister Addie undertakes as a missionary in China. This CSN&Y song has always struck me as unique in capturing the sense of a home’s precariousness: listening to it, I think about the passage of time, how the marriage and family in the song will change even as the house remains the same.

Reginald de Koven and Clement Scott – “Oh, Promise Me!”

After the opening chapter, the book dives more than a century into the past, and we’re with Louisa, Hazel’s mother, on a farm in Illinois. In the 1890s, Tin Pan Alley got started and created the earliest “pop music,” and it’s fascinating to me that this took place through the vehicle of sheet music rather than audio recordings—that means there’s no definitive version of any of these songs, only interpretations. Though Addie, living in China, would have missed out on all that music, Louisa would have known some of it, perhaps even played it on the family piano. Near the end of the novel, Louisa is losing her recent memory, and more and more dipping into the far past. At one point, she thinks she’s a girl again, listening to her father singing “Oh, Promise Me!”

Old Crow Medicine Show – “Wagon Wheel”

This was the song of my MFA days, when I first started working on this novel. It was played everywhere, all the time, in everyone’s car, at every party. A group of fellow MFA students had a band that did covers, and this was one of them. I can’t hear it now without being taken back to the early days of trying to figure out how to write a novel, how to write this novel.

Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun) – “The Moon Represents My Heart”
鄧麗君 - 月亮代表我的心

It’s difficult to overstate how important this song is to karaoke in China. This is the one that everyone can sing; it unites young and old; it is utterly beloved and dripping with nostalgia (it was a pop hit of the 1970s). In Rebellion, it’s the song Lulu croons to win over Zhuo Ge’s heart. I heard this song so often when I was living in China that it hits the same nostalgia button for me that it hits for every person who grew up there: it’s a song from a previous era, from a China that’s already long gone.

Faye Wong (Wang Fei) – “Split”
王菲 - 分裂

When Juanlan writes to her boyfriend from college, who’s now living in a different city, she mentions listening to this song and thinking of him. Its singer, Wang Fei, was a popular musician in the 1990s in China, and the album that includes “Fenlie” was released a couple of years before Juanlan’s story begins. This song is not necessarily one that bodes well for a relationship. Of course, only Chinese speakers could possibly catch that reference in the book (you have to know that “fenlie” means “to split up”), but that’s fine with me. I like to hammer down details and be specific when I can. If I can have a little fun with it, then all the better.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – “Sonata No.16 in C Major”

At the end of the first Juanlan section, she listens to the boy she’s tutoring in English, Wei Ke, play a classical song on the piano, something “lively and bright, the notes filling the air like a spill of butterflies.” I’ve always imagined that it’s the first movement of this Mozart sonata that she hears in that moment. I studied piano for many years and this was one of my favorites to play; it’s so light and beautiful, and somehow both energetic and calming.

Faron Young – “If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’”

Hazel’s story takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and my association with that time is doowop, girl groups, and early rock ’n roll. But that’s not what Hazel was listening to: she preferred “country and western” music. Faron Young was a major singer at the time, and an occasional guest on the Ozark Jubilee, a television program in the latter half of the 1950s that helped bring the honky-tonk sound to the public. I imagine Hazel would have had some of his records at home, and when she danced in the living room with her husband, it was probably to one of these songs.

Ferlin Husky – “On the Wings of a Dove”

This song comes on the radio when Hazel and Lydie are in the car on the way to St. Louis. It’s a song I remember my grandparents playing frequently in my youth. I have a very clear picture of my grandfather strumming the guitar and grinning at my grandmother as they both sang. They had a way of making religious music sound like love songs.

Song Zuying – “Jasmine Flower”
宋祖英 - 茉莉花

This is a traditional Chinese folk song, originating in the 18th century, but everyone knows it today and can sing much of it from memory. When I was living in China, I heard it more frequently than the average foreigner would because my Chinese name is Jasmine Flower (phonetically, it sounds similar to Molly). Upon hearing my Chinese name, people would frequently break into song and ask if I knew it. In Rebellion, this is the number that Wei Ke reluctantly plays on the piano when Juanlan first visits his home. (Song Zuying, whose version of the song I’ve listed here, is a famous musician, Communist Party member, and onetime member of the National People’s Congress. She frequently appears on television singing specials, which are all the rage in China. She therefore felt like the perfect choice, given Director Wei’s ties to the Party and government.)

Jay Chou (Zhou Jielun) – “Love in the Time B.C.”
周杰伦 - 爱在西元前

When I moved to China in 2004, all my friends were listening to Jay Chou. This song is my favorite of his. It’s full of longing, and if I had known of him or been able to listen to his music when I was a teenager, I would have been hopelessly in love, emphasis on the “hopeless.” Chou broke onto the music scene in China and Taiwan in 2000, just after my character Juanlan’s storyline ends. I like to think of her listening to him in her new life, wherever that is.

Merle Haggard – “He Walks With Me”

Both my grandmothers are in this book, in their own fashion. My paternal grandmother, Colleen Patterson, died last fall, as I was finishing edits. For years and years, she and my grandfather drove their RV down to the flea market in Pevely, Missouri, every weekend to sell a variety of wares, including “Black Hills Gold” jewelry. They led a church service every Sunday morning for the other sellers, and they always included country gospel music. They’d also play for my family, and there were times that my maternal grandmother, a widow for many years, would come with us to visit my paternal grandparents. She had a quiet smile that appeared when they played music. “He Walks With Me” was one of my grandparents’ favorites and was played at my paternal grandmother’s funeral. For me, all that old music moves through this book.

Molly Patterson and Rebellion links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
VolumeOne profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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