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December 5, 2018

Susan Bernhard's Playlist for Her Novel "Winter Loon"

Winter Loon

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

Susan Bernhard's novel Winter Loon is an impressive debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Wes’s struggles are convincing; the Midwestern setting is well realized…Bernhard’s coming-of-age tale is a strong debut."


In her own words, here is Susan Bernhard's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Winter Loon:



My debut novel Winter Loon is the story of a boy abandoned by his father after his mother drowns in an icy lake. The narrator, Wes Ballot, is in his late 20s as he tells the story of this particular year in his life. And while this is Wes’ story, it’s a story that also belongs to the women who shaped his life, for good and maybe not so good. Winter Loon is set in Minnesota and Montana in the late 1970s, but the songs on this playlist don’t necessarily reflect the time period as much as they capture the changing seasons and the moods and movements of characters navigating treacherous waters.

1. California Dreamin' by The Mamas and The Papas
This song has that well-known beach sound but the lyrics tell a different story. It’s about being trapped, trying to wish your way out of a bleak situation, looking for greener pastures. “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today…” What a thought! I think this captures Wes’ father Moss perfectly.

2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Linda Ronstadt

I always pictured Wes’ mother Valerie like a young Linda Ronstadt—the black bangs brushing her eyelashes, that sultry vulnerability. Valerie is more damaged than this song lets on but I love the ice-clear sound of Ronstadt’s voice and wish Valerie had had this strength.

3. Love You Once Made by Valerie June

I don’t believe in fate but I think about inevitability sometimes—how paths we choose can only lead to certain destinations. This song speaks to that and maybe the limitations of love. That sounds so cynical! I do think we put too much pressure on love to be endless and all-encompassing so that, when it ebbs in the cycle of things, it feels like it’s fading. This song reminds me of the end of the Robert Frost poem “Reluctance.”

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?


4. Laundry Room by The Avett Brothers

When I was a kid, we used to play a game called “Crack The Whip” where everyone held hands in a long line and the leader pulled the line in a snaking zig-zag, trying to throw the kid at the end. There’s a line in this song, “Keep your clothes on/I’ve got all that I can take”—that so captures young love, the way it surges, how you can barely hang on to it. Love playing crack the whip.

5. Shadow on the Wall by Ruby Emanfu

The first time I heard this song was after all the revisions were done on Winter Loon. It absolutely blew me away how it captured the thing inside Wes’ grandmother Ruby that wants to know truth but not be held accountable, how she wants to be seen but also disappear. I have great sympathy for Ruby and her broken, broken self.

6. Something in the Night by Bruce Springsteen (Wes, Jolene, Lester)

I had a crappy Camaro when I was 18 or 19 and I so loved driving that car fast and cranking up Bruce Springsteen. Something about his urgent voice, the pulsing drum, that piano, the sax—just made my foot heavy. I imagine Wes driving around with Lester and Jolene, cranking the music, drinking beers, searching for salvation, wishing the night would never end.

7. Seasons by Chris Cornell

This road that Wes is on is so busted up by potholes and this song to me is Wes’ low point. He’s so desperate to figure out where he fits in. The line, “Now I want to fly above the storm/ But you can't grow feathers in the rain/And the naked floor is cold as hell” speaks to how much he wants to break the grip of his past but keeps getting pulled down.

8. The House That Built Me by Miranda Lambert

Aveline was a character from a short story I wrote a long time ago, about a girl who falls for the wrong guy, how she gives up everything to be with him, but loses him, too. I loved that character’s inherent goodness even though she was naïve. I was so happy to find a place for her in Winter Loon. The idea of not being able to go home again—or that you can’t step in the same river twice—is all about not living in the past and not living with regret. But the idea of “home” is such a powerful touchstone. Maybe I’d cast Miranda Lambert in the role of Aveline…

9. Tender Is The Man by Rose Cousins

I know who sings this song for Wes but don’t want to give it away here. We forget sometimes what tender means. We think of it as an outward gesture but it’s also a gentleness of spirit, a way we feel injury, loss, and love. I once held a bullfrog tadpole in my hand and I would say that’s what tenderness feels like—willing, fragile, full of potential.

10. I Know You By Heart by Eva Cassidy

I’ve always tortured myself by tugging on memories which makes even difficult things in my past seem more present. I think Wes is a bit like that. Though he’s telling us the story in Winter Loon from a distance of about a dozen years, he can recall the details because he’s likely been turning them over and over in his mind so they’re etched there. This song is about what we commit to memory and what we don’t allow ourselves to forget.

11. Without You by Eddie Vedder

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love Eddie Vedder. His solo album Ukulele Songs could be a soundtrack for this whole novel but I especially love this song for Wes. Don’t we all know people who have endured so much yet somehow they go on, share themselves and their stories, open themselves up to goodness even if it means risking more hurt? Some people may find Winter Loon to be a bleak story but I see it as a story of resilience.

12. Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel

There’s a reference to a single song on a cassette tape and this is it. Again, it’s that reflection, that melancholy seeping in with a sigh. What a time it was!

13. Traveling Alone by Jason Isbell

I can hear exhaustion and vulnerability in the pleading rise of Jason Isbell’s voice when he sings the word “tired,” a pitch reminiscent of Roy Orbison or Chris Isaak. Sometimes I would imagine Wes as someone like Jason Isbell, not in the way he looks but in the bruised confidence Isbell has on stage and shares in his music. My hope for Wes is that he becomes a person who is finally able to own his past but not be slayed by it.

14. Gentle On My Mind by Joe Henry and Billy Bragg

Because some people just don’t have it in them to stay.


Susan Bernhard and Winter Loon links:


also at Largehearted Boy:

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