The television in the bar is showing 24-hour footage of the wreckage of Hurricane Irene. Vale, a young, strong-willed woman from Vermont, nervously watches as she bartends. Then she gets a call. Her mother, Bonnie, is missing, and nobody has seen her since the storm blew through New England. Although Vale moved far from her bleak hometown to escape her drug-addicted mother, she must now return to Heart Spring Mountain.
As she searches for Bonnie, Vale finds clues that astonish her. Through photos, police records, cellphone footage and the folklore of her family, Vale learns she is inescapably tied to the land and people of Heart Spring Mountain. She discovers the importance of that place and sees her origin in a new light.
Robin MacArthur’s debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain, exhibits the power of place and how land can hold people together. It shows how the earth we live on is tied to our being. Answering questions about the Vermont setting, her characters and the act of writing, MacArthur imparts wisdom about landscape, our attempts to redefine our pasts and more.
What inspired this work?
I’m not sure where novels come from—a dream space we’re only half conscious of, a compost pile of everything we’ve ever felt and seen and known. The first scraps (characters) arose out of my subconscious and lingered for long enough (10 years) that I knew they were worthy of my time. The more concrete shapes and themes of the novel—Tropical Storm Irene, climate change, opioid addiction—reflect my most pressing fears for my children, my community, the world.
In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene devastated my community in southern Vermont, and I realized for the first time that the effects of climate change would not only be wild and unpredictable, but everywhere. There would be no escaping its tragedies. The opioid epidemic has deeply altered my hometown. And so the question for me, and for this novel, became: How do we help one another through hard times? How can the past both answer for our brokenness and teach us how to heal?
Both of your published works, the story collection Half Wild and Heart Spring Mountain, have such a strong sense of place set in Vermont. What do you hope to capture about Vermont with your work, and in what ways do your stories go beyond your setting?
I love the Eudora Welty quote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” My work is set in southern Vermont because that’s the place I know and have access to. My great-grandparents moved here in the 1930s, and each generation of my family has lived here since. That’s taught me about this place, but more importantly, about places in general—how there are both vertical and horizontal understandings of place. I try to access the vertical layers of place in my work; to show how places evolve over time, and how the markings of time and history—racial, economic, agricultural—are etched into our everyday lives, whether we recognize those layers or not. So yes, my work is set in Vermont, but I don’t consider them stories “about” Vermont. I consider them stories about how humans both shape and are shaped by the landscapes they inhabit. About how we can be transformed by our relationships to place—their histories, their natural landscapes, the creatures we share them with, the stories embedded within.
How has your own relationship with farming in Vermont informed your writing?
My grandparents lived in the farmhouse up the hill from where I live now; they had a huge vegetable garden and cut all their own firewood (20 cords a winter). In 1968, my parents dropped out of college and built a cabin on a nearby hillside and have lived on that piece of land since, dedicating their lives to sugar making and vegetable farming. I grew up in an off-grid house with an outhouse, cows, chickens, a wood stove, a monstrous vegetable garden. I knew exactly where my water came from, where the electricity that powered our flickering lights came from (a couple of solar panels), where the heat came from, where my food came from (and where it retired). Living that way gives you a sense of interconnection with the natural world and resources that I don’t think you could ever learn from a book.
I don’t live that way now—I’m a terrible gardener and love my flush toilet—but that sense of reverence for resources and for the natural world has never left me. My parents, through their way of living, taught me that humans are part and parcel of the natural world, co-habitors, with an immense responsibility to keep the woods and fields and streams around us healthy and vibrant (for our own health and survival as well as for the ecosystem at large). Without expressing it as such, my parents are pragmatic transcendentalists, deeply humble, servants to their community and their landscape—and though I’ve rejected many parts of my upbringing (indoor toilet! lazy mornings!), I deeply admire their reverence for the earth.
Really it comes down to perspective—seeing the individual human story as a small story within a much larger story—that of seasons and generations, of the earth’s wildness and the earth’s ability to feed our bodies if we tend it with care. My mother loves the coyotes that stalk the creek between our houses as much as she loves anything or anyone. I weave that worldview into every one of my books—a shifting from the human at center stage to the human at side stage, and that viewpoint without a doubt comes from the way I was raised.
“Vale unravels family secrets and cultural secrets, and in doing so uncovers a blueprint for her future. She uncovers brokenness, yes, but within those shards are strands of hope, too. Blueprints for love. Resiliency. Connection.”
Vale is such a strong-willed and independent character. How do you think she changes over the course of the novel?
It was a challenge for me working with character evolution over the long arc of a novel. In short stories, characters can change relatively quickly—or you focus a story on that moment when they do change. With Vale, I needed to evolve her at the tempo of the book, which meant she and I both had to move slowly.
I see her as fierce and resilient at the beginning of the book, but also afraid to let people in. Afraid of intimacy. She’s running from her past (with good reason) and trying to find family / connection / belonging in a city 1,500 miles away from home. But she also doesn’t know who she is, because she’s running. She does find an adopted family of sorts in New Orleans, whom she might return to, but she can’t discover who she is until she returns home and faces her demons. And she does. She returns home to look for her mother, Bonnie, for whom life has not been easy; she’s long been addicted to opioids, has recently found Jesus. During the course of the book, Vale unravels family secrets and cultural secrets, and in doing so uncovers a blueprint for her future. She uncovers brokenness, yes, but within those shards are strands of hope, too. Blueprints for love. Resiliency. Connection. A narrative of hope, strung amid the broken rafters. And so she slowly opens herself. To vulnerability. To the humans nearby. And begins to ask questions she hasn’t asked before about life purpose, and what hers might be.
With Heart Spring Mountain, you’re considering questions of our past: what we can escape or redefine (about ourselves and our own families) and what we can’t. Why?
Yes, this is one of the big questions of the book, and something that’s personal for me. Unlike most college graduates, I chose to return home to build a house and raise a family on the land where I grew up and where my dad grew up. I wanted to be immersed in a landscape I knew well, and I wanted to be near its ghosts. Like Faulkner, the ghosts of a place are ever-present for me, in ways that both haunt me and define who I am. Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” echoes my worldview. We live in culture obsessed with rebirth and freedom and things that are new, but until we acknowledge the past, both our historical violences (racism, slavery, the genocide of Native peoples) and own personal histories and lineage (embedded in our cells), we can’t begin to heal. And so while I don’t believe that everyone has to, or should, return home to find themselves, I do believe that the only way forward, as a nation or personally, is by acknowledging the grievances and resiliency embedded in our pasts. Both history’s wounds and history’s beauty.
And that’s where the hope of this book lies—that when we do uncover the past, we might be surprised by what hope lies there as well. All sorts of new and beautiful things have the potential to unfold. That, in my mind, is true freedom. Not running, but digging in and letting the ghosts escape. Defining yourself via the past, not in spite of it. At the book’s conclusion, Vale has found a connection—to her family, to the landscape, to the past—that will root her no matter where she lands.
With Vale coming from New Orleans to witness the wreckage of Tropical Storm Irene, it seems that our land faces similar questions of repeating the past, and bearing the wounds of the past’s damage. Is this something you wanted to explore with your novel?
Yes. There’s a quote from Evan Pritchard’s book No Word for Time that I use in the book: “To do damage to the earth does spiritual damage as well.” In some ways that quote captures what I believe to be the heart of this story—the ways in which we, as a culture, have severed our connections to the earth, to community, to indigenous traditions, to family, to the past, to spiritual traditions, and in doing so, have become, like Bonnie and like Vale, irreparably or reparably lost.
Climate change and opioid addiction are both symptoms of the same illness: capitalism and disconnection. Just as Vale has to unearth her family story in order to begin to find herself, there are secrets written in the landscape that will continue to haunt the landscape until those secrets are revealed. In the case of this book, Vale learns about the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, a survey of the 1920s and ’30s whose intent and result was to institutionalize, terrorize and force into hiding Vermont’s marginalized people. Many native people in Vermont were institutionalized, sterilized and forced to either hide or flee. This is not ancient history—it’s a fresh and violent wound that has been successfully covered up, and has yet to be properly acknowledged or addressed. How can we heal, as a culture, until we acknowledge our trespasses? How can we have a sustainable relationship with the earth if we have evicted and silenced our indigenous cultures?
Capitalism is very good at distracting us. It has bred a world of disconnection—to the past, to community, to family, to reverence for the natural world. And the repercussions are vast: war, climate change, opioid addiction, inequality—you name it. Healing—personal via changing neural pathways, or cultural via reparations—can only begin once we acknowledge what’s been done. And then we need to come together, as the characters in this book do, in the most old fashioned and essential of ways. With fire. And music. And soup and bread and wine, to keep one another company. We need to learn from the vanquished past ways of survival, ways of reverence. Life is long and can be so lonely. We are in a dark spell and the years ahead may be dark as well—authentic companionship is key, and where hope lies.
What was the most difficult part of writing your debut novel? What was the easiest?
This novel had been brewing in my mind (and on scraps of paper) for a good 10 years, so I knew, for years, what the general shape would be. I knew the characters. I knew that Vale would return home. I knew I wanted it to have a buoyancy of perspective—hop from one point of view to the next quickly, skip back and forth in time—to reflect the ways in which the past and the present, and each of us, are inextricably interwoven and interconnected. So the overall shaping of the novel was surprisingly easy. (I think because it happened in an unpressured dream space over such a long period of time.) The writing itself was also fun—scenes, characters, voice—those are my bread and butter. The challenge was creating a narrative arc for the novel as a whole, and for each point of view (there are seven). I needed to make sure each character thread had urgency and momentum, but was moving at the same pace as the novel. And then I had to find a way to weave them all together in ways that felt organic. I spent many hours mapping scenes, and wasted many more moving scenes around trying to find their perfect home. Thank goodness for my brilliant editor, who let me know, gracefully, when to take my hands off the pages and call it done.
You are a musician as well as a writer. Do these two arts inform each other?
Yes, my husband and I have a band, Red Heart the Ticker. We’ve recorded four albums and toured and all that jazz. We’ve stopped recording and performing music (for now), but I like to think of my writing as an extension of that singing. My grandmother was a folk-song collector and singer; I grew up listening to her and others sing in her farmhouse up the hill. There’s a part of me that considers the writing of books a continuation of her singing—keeping company through the darkness, offering a gift to bring peace or laughter or yearning or mere companionship to another. Like I said above—life is long and these times are dark. Art is the light in the dark. Both blueprint and company. On a more practical note, I think I might rock back and forth a bit when I’m writing; the rhythm on the page, like the rhythm of the song, is for me essential.
What are you working on next?
Oh, I don’t know! I have three or four files on my computer that are each growing slowly and fermenting, and at some point I’m hoping one of them will jump off the page and scream, “Me! I’m next!” I don’t think we can choose these things. Writing a book is a long love affair. One has to feel authentically called to the page. So we shall see what happens.