Heart Spring Mountain: A Novel by Robin MacArthur


She knows nothing of war. Her pain comes from different wounds, but isn’t all pain shaded the same color? Soft blue, plum. Running up and down our veins. Recognizable across the room.

I had the pleasure of reading an uncorrected proof of this novel months ago and it found me at just the right time. I was in the mood for nature, for disappearing and the writing hit me in all the right spots. I finished it late one night, sad that I’d have to wait months to write a review, because it’s a gorgeous debut novel. Vale has made a life for herself in New Orleans, away from her drug addicted mother, where she now tends the bar, immersing herself  in the rhythm of her surrounding. In this life Vale is clean, sober, no longer influenced by her mother’s dysfunction, addiction. Watching tropical storm Irene on tv, she realizes that the river town being washed away by floods in Vermont is the one her mother lives on, and it isn’t immune to severe storms after all. A call from her aunt Deb, who feels more like a stranger than blood, stuns her with news that her mother walked off into the surging storm, seen by a neighbor walking towards the very bridge that has just collapsed. She grabs her cash and finds a bus back to the last place she ever wanted to return to. Why was her mother so restless, so desperate to escape a life of order?

Home again in Heart Spring (her family’s mountain) everything has changed, she sees the life her mother abandoned with different eyes. What Vale thinks she knows about her ancestors is poisoned by everything her mother has taught her. Her foolish, wild, free mother who believed they carried Indian blood. Was she just appropriating a culture, just how much history did her mother have right? Her aunt Hazel, unbeknownst to her, has a mind that is a ‘leaky ship full of holes.” She wonders, Is this Bonnie whom the storm has spit out… No. It is Bonnie’s girl, Vale, here to find her missing mother. How is Hazel ever going to communicate everything she knows, feels, remembers (all those things that are wrong and makes things right) when she herself is slowly disappearing? How can she let go of this life, when there is no one to care for the land, so deeply ingrained in her soul, that their ancestors settled? Vale has come to hate what the land represents, a cruel history stolen from the natives at hands of her family. But why do the remains of their past, family photos, tell a different story?

The addiction Bonnie has, the wreck she’s made of her life is evident, but there is still beauty in the memories Vale has. When you come to understand where the wildness in Bonnie springs from, there is a keener sense of understanding how the ruptures came about. Lena and Bonnie are both mysteries begging to be solved, both ghosts in their lifetimes. Vale is strong, but she is lost without a true history.

When Deb was young, she wanted to be free, to get back to the grass-roots of her grandmother’s people, the farming of crops,  working the land, seduced by the writing of Thoreau and her grandmother’s memories, she makes her way to the mountain, to what she feels will be freedom! What she finds is a commune, but her youthful idealism will be shattered when the reality of hunger, poverty, betrayal, and the ever shifting direction of love occurs. When she finds Stephen, she clings, makes a home for herself beside him though he is unlike her fellow ‘hippie makeshift family’, the very ones she has walked away from. Over time, it becomes clear that a child isn’t enough to pull him out of his silences. Deb and Hazel (Stephen’s mother), are two lonely women who never wanted each other, blameless and yet pointing fingers at one another for the tragedy that takes place and here they are stuck together. Deb of the present is a mother longing for her grown son’s return, far more attuned to working with nature than she was in her wide-eyed youth, caring for her mother-in-law, as close to the version of the grandmother she once longed to be as she’ll ever get.

Past and present reveal secrets about three generation of women, hidden truths that change the structure of the family as they know it. We meet the family hermit Lena, a spirited woman who was as much a part of nature as any creature of the earth. Untamed, misunderstood and just as capable of passion as any ‘proper lady’. Hazel is the steady sister, the keeper of order, and the one whose heart breaks on the cruelty of years, losing everything she has come to love. Hazel, ‘a lifetime spent taking care of others.’ Why can’t she be selfish? Why, why does everyone prefer those who are free, abandon people like her who give so much, who make the right choice even when it robs her of all happiness? Why is nothing ever fully hers?

I know I am all over the place, much like the novel, because it is true that it jumps. It can be a problem for me sometimes with other novels, but I was so deeply engaged by all the characters that it flowed beautifully for me. I had my heart in my throat halfway through, thinking about the cruelties of life and the infections of love, because love isn’t always safe, romantic nor loyal. It’s not just a novel about an estranged mother and daughter, nor drug addiction, nor faults in family lines, it’s about all those things and nature is an ever-present character, sometimes a beast that reminds you it’s beyond your control. How wrong we are about each other, and even more about ourselves. How much does our anger towards others matter at the end? What do we keep with our pain? What do we gain when we let it go?

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