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Heart Spring Mountain

Review

Heart Spring Mountain

Robin MacArthur is a true Renaissance woman --- a musician, educator and writer whose work is deeply imbued with a love for the Vermont landscape where she has spent her whole life. Her first book, a short story collection titled HALF WILD, garnered numerous awards, including the 2017 PEN New England Award for Fiction. Now, in her first novel, HEART SPRING MOUNTAIN, MacArthur touches on such weighty issues as climate change, poverty and rural drug abuse while also penning a family saga that feels deeply personal.

It’s August 2011 in New Orleans, where Vale is paying the bills by tending bar and occasionally stripping. Then she gets a phone call. It turns out the damage from Tropical Storm Irene in northern New England is much worse than what Vale had been hearing. And, what’s worse, her vulnerable mother Bonnie, an intravenous drug user, has disappeared in the wake of the storm’s devastating flooding.

"[R]eaders will be captivated by MacArthur’s gorgeous, elegiac tribute to the land she loves and to the resilient souls who have made it their own."

Vale never planned to return to Vermont for anything more than a brief visit. But when she receives the news about her mother, that’s exactly what she does, searching for clues about her mother’s whereabouts while also reconnecting with her older female relatives and learning about her family’s history, which is centered on the Heart Spring Mountain of the book’s title.

MacArthur’s narrative shifts back and forth between the present-day perspectives of Vale and her grandmother Hazel (who’s suffering from dementia and consequently losing her grasp on the passage of time) and the historical perspectives of other members of Vale’s family, including Vale’s aunt Deb, who came to Vermont to join a commune in the Vietnam era, as well as Vale’s late grandmother Lena, a true mountain woman whose closest companion was an owl. This fluid narration is appropriate, given the book that Vale is reading and reflecting on throughout her time in Vermont: Evan T. Pritchard’s NO WORD FOR TIME, about how the Algonquin Indians relied on the rhythms of nature rather than a quantitative understanding of time.

As images of the past overlap with the present, secrets from Vale’s family history come to light, secrets that affect Vale’s understanding of herself, her mother and her entire family. Meanwhile, as time passes and the impacts of Tropical Storm Irene become just a memory elsewhere in the country (subsumed by other, more dramatic weather events), Vale must contend with hopelessness, both a particular hopelessness about the fate of her mother and a more existential hopelessness for the fate of humanity.

MacArthur’s novel wrestles with this hopelessness. In a place where abundant natural beauty coexists with poverty and drug use, where living off the land may become a necessity rather than a luxury, she illustrates a small group of damaged and isolated people who find hope the only way they can --- through one another. “While the world begins its great unraveling they are all there, dancing, their love and their joy on their shoulders. Their best-intentioned, misspent love.”

HEART SPRING MOUNTAIN is full of moments like this, beautiful lyrical passages that prompt readers to pause and reflect, perhaps simply to sit quietly for a while. The novel isn’t perfect --- the thematic significance of the titular mountain is a little heavy-handed, and the essentializing and idealizing of Vale’s Native heritage may rub some the wrong way --- but in the end, readers will be captivated by MacArthur’s gorgeous, elegiac tribute to the land she loves and to the resilient souls who have made it their own.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 12, 2018

Heart Spring Mountain
by Robin MacArthur

  • Publication Date: January 9, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062444425
  • ISBN-13: 9780062444424