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February 18, 2019

Raymond Strom's Playlist for His Novel "Northern Lights"

Northern Lights

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors includea 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.

Raymond Strom's Northern Lights is a stunning debut, an unforgettable coming of age novel.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"Good news for readers who love coming-of-age stories and don't mind their fiction soaked in drugs: Northern Lights a debut novel by Hibbing, Minn., native Raymond Strom, might be described as a cross between two of the greats in those categories: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson."

In his own words, here is Raymond Strom's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Northern Lights:

In a sense, Northern Lights has been brewing in my mind for more than twenty years, ever since a student-led confederate flag parade rolled through Cambridge, Minnesota in 1997. In the years before and after that, I witnessed first-hand the effects of crystal meth on the Midwest, initially through my own circle of friends, and later through the stories of people with whom I found myself in drug-treatment facilities. These two themes twisted in my head for years as character after character came up against their own weaknesses and limitations—some merely falling into the web of drugs and desire I set, while others were destroyed entirely—until I found a protagonist that could live through the harsh world I was intent on recreating.

Shane Stephenson, the narrator of Northern Lights, has to leave in a hurry when his uncle kicks him out of his childhood home, so quickly that he leaves all of his music behind. Being a seventeen-year-old boy growing up in the rural Midwest in the late 1990s, his cassette collection was influenced much by MTV but also by the few classic rock radio stations that reached his house on clear nights. If you asked him which five songs he felt best describe the summer of 1997, he would play these for you:

“Halah” - Mazzy Star

In the short time Shane has to gather his things, he finds a Christmas card that his estranged mother had sent him years earlier. The return address on the envelope leads him to Holm, Minnesota, where he arrives with the hope of finding his mother so he can forgive her for abandoning him as a child and spend some time with her before he goes off to college in September. He truly wants to forgive her, but he remains conflicted: “Maybe I hold you to blame for all the reasons that you left…”

“Kiss Off” - Violent Femmes

Shane’s long hair and androgynous looks drive the local boys wild when they see him on the street, some of the young men building to a furor when they realize he is not a woman. On his first day in town Shane has to deal with shouted comments and even a violent attack over his appearance: “You can all just kiss off into the air, Behind my back I can see them stare, They’ll hurt me bad but I won’t mind, They’ll hurt me bad they do it all the time…”

“Corduroy” - Pearl Jam

Though distracted by the small group of allies he collects in Holm, and the first true sense of belonging he’s ever had, Shane does eventually get a lead on his mother and finds his way to her house: “The waiting drove me mad, You’re finally here and I’m a mess…” Shane would say that this is a classic song of reunion gone awry.

“Castles Made of Sand” -The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Can’t say, at any point, that Shane’s plans turn out well: his drug use drops him into a world of delusion, his friends J and Mary leave town without a word to him about it, his reunion with his mother creates as many problems as it solves: “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually…”

“Change” - Blind Melon

Back in Holm after the reunion with his mother, Shane finds that his absence has allowed the unthinkable to happen and he must overcome his own despair in order to find the truth: “When your deepest thoughts are broken, keep on dreaming boy, ‘cause when you stop dreamin’ it’s time to die…”

I often listen to music while I write, so I wanted to add two of my favorite songs from the current century to Shane’s list as well. These are songs I think Shane too would like and listen to in the present day—they would certainly give him flashbacks of his past:

“Ocean Breathes Salty” - Modest Mouse

By the end of Northern Lights, many of Shane’s friends have disappeared, never to be seen again, and similarly, I’ve lost touch with friends from my youth only to find, years later when seeking them out, an online mugshot or a funeral notice: “And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both grow old. Well I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I hope so…”

“Maurice & Michael (Sorry I Didn’t Say Hello)” - Ambrose Akinmusire

At one live performance I saw, Akinmusire introduced this piece with a story about seeing a childhood friend on the street in Oakland. It had been years since they had last met but he could see that his friend was so obviously high that, instead of saying hello and entering that world again himself, he slipped away, picked up his trumpet, and composed this song.

Raymond Strom and Northern Lights links:

author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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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

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