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January 9, 2018

Book Notes - Robin MacArthur "Heart Spring Mountain"

Heart Spring Mountain

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.

Like her short story collection Half Wild, Robin MacArthur's debut novel Heart Spring Mountain is impressively tied to the landscape.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Powerful...MacArthur demonstrates a commanding ability to weave meaning from separate narrative threads, exploring how the impact of a person’s choices can echo through generations, even as a storm washes the past away."

In her own words, here is Robin MacArthur's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Heart Spring Mountain:

There's not much I enjoy more than making a soundtrack for my books, which are peppered throughout with song. Music was my first poetry; the house where I grew up (off-grid, surrounded by trees, atop a mountainside), had an LP collection that contained Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lightin' Hopkins, John Prine, Otis Redding, Dolly Parton and Hank Williams. I listened to those LPs like they were gospel, and music still functions as my emotional touchstone, my transportation, my exaltation. Because my characters are born of my own brain (and lived experience), that's how they function, too; they narrate their lives via song, find solace in song, enact communion via song. (And get off their butts and dance to song). I flipped through Heart Spring Mountain and found at least twenty-five songs littered throughout. I selected fifteen essentials here for you.

Louis Armstrong, "Mack the Knife"
Lena listens to this song in her first scene. It speaks to the ways in which music expands our worlds; Lena's a hermit living in a cabin with her pet owl on Heart Spring Mountain in Vermont in 1956, but she can turn her radio on and listen to Satchmo sing "Mack the Knife" when she gets lonely. And she does. Music is transportation. Music is inhalation. Music is exaltation.

Janis Joplin, "Me and Bobby McGee"
Deb listens to this song in her first scene. It's 1974, she's dropped out of college, left her suburban home outside of Pittsburgh, and is hitchhiking north to find a commune to stay at for a while. Janis sings, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." In response Deb thinks, "Freedom. It feels different when you're alone, without wheels underneath you."

Ruth Brown, "Lucky Lips"
Deb does find that commune, and meets Ginny, and Bird, who introduces her to "all the best music." Including this one. Dance parties ensue.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Helpless"
It's 2011. Tropical Storm Irene has hit southern Vermont, and Bonnie has filled her arm with heroin, walked out into the rain, and disappeared. "Deb closes her eyes and sees Bonnie in a hard rain, Bonnie on a bridge, thin wrists, bruised bones. Will they find her? Helpless; that's what Deb is up here on this hillside. Helpless, she thinks, humming Stephen's favorite Neil Young song." No song, for me, captures the yearning for home (spiritual/biographical/geographical) the way this one does.

Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will be Live"
Bird, at the commune back in 1974, plays this song for Deb in her attic room after they've made love. The revolution still feels quietly alive in 1974. In 2011 it feels far away. Will it rise again?

Odetta, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"
Vale has come home, after ten years away, to look for her mother, Bonnie. "'Who are you?' Vale asks her own reflection in the mirror. She pulls some lipstick out of her bag and paints her lips bright red, dances to Odetta singing, ‘Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," in small circles around the room." Women's voices weave through the book: solace and company during the darkest of times.

George Brassens
Deb has a quiet fascination with all things French: wine, music, films. On this rural hillside where she lives those things become her escape route, her wings. Deb invites Vale to her cabin for dinner. They watch Agnes Varda's Vagabond and drink red wine. Afterwards Deb slips a George Brassens record out of its sleeve and she and Vale dance. "Dancing, she thinks: an occupation of the spirit. A refusal to give up joy."

John Prine, "Quiet Man"
John Prine was Stephen's favorite artist. His song "Hello in There" echoes throughout the book. But this song is best for Stephen himself, a man for whom words and relationships were tricky, but for whom "beauty and silence" both ran deep.

Edith Piaf, "La Vie en Rose"
Deb brings Vale to the commune where she lived when she first arrived. Her friend Ginny is still living there; she puts on a Piaf record, and climbs the purple fabric of her trapeze while "La Vie in Rose" plays. "Piaf's voice reminds (Vale) of earthy French wine, of cigarette smoke. She thinks of her mother dancing to Patti Smith in the darkened kitchen. Of Shante singing in French in her apartment in New Orleans. The voices of these women: strange medicine."

Leonard Cohen, "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"
Leonard Cohen died when I was writing this book. His songs would have wound their way in regardless, but they became a particular touchstone in the writing at that point. In some ways the book is about our need to tell our stories—and to find the language with which to do so. Cohen sings, "I'd like to tell my story, before I turn into gold!" and Vale and Danny and Neko sing along as they drive back roads, out of key, half-drunk, "Intoxicated by recklessness and moonlight." Heroes, each of them.

Missy Elliot, "My Struggles"
It's the end of the book: the winter solstice. There's an ice storm. They meet at the old farmhouse on the hill with food and drink and candlelight. Vale thinks, "Isn't this what people have always done—will continue to do—during dark times: gather?" After dinner they smoke a joint and put on music. Ruth Brown's 5-10-15, and then Vale goes to her phone and puts on Missy's "Partytime." "'Just what you might have heard in this very kitchen fifty years ago," Danny says, grinning…Vale raises her arms above her head, closes her eyes, shimmies her hips back and forth to Missy's syncopated thwack. Missy's unapologetic presence in the world. Missy's fury, sex, self-love.'"

John Lennon, "Love"
One of Bonnie's favorite songs, and a touchstone for this book. In Lennon's words: "Love is free. Free is love. Love is living, living love. Love is needing, to be loved."

Nina Simone, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free"
This is the last song in the book, and my all-time favorite. Each of these characters is, in their own way, finding out how to be free. Looking for a way to say all the things that they should say. To be heard. To share all the love that's in their hearts. "If there were a singular voice of God, Deb thinks, it would be Nina Simone's."

Ray Charles, "My Bonnie"
Last but not least. This song is for Bonnie.

Robin MacArthur and Heart Spring Mountain links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

VTDigger profile of the author
Writer's Bone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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