Climate change hits Vermont in Robin MacArthur's "Heart Spring Mountain"
BRATTLEBORO — Water shoots through Robin MacArthur's debut novel, "Heart Spring Mountain." Downpours, streams, freezing rain, swamps, the water-rush of birth. Characters cross bridges, slip on ice, swim in rivers, drink from the mountain spring, die in floods, sleep in snow.
Set largely on a southern Vermont mountainside, the novel begins with Tropical Storm Irene, the most destructive water this part of the world has known in recent history. From that roaring shock, water engulfs and transforms each tough, wounded character — turning life to death, love to coldness, loneliness to passion, regret to joy, connection to silence, despair to freedom — as it gouges the earth. Nothing escapes ruin. But this is also the story of hope, the possibility of resurrection by a person, a people, and a planet, and a magnificent, rutting, music-steeped will to survive.
MacArthur was born and lives in Marlboro on land her great-grandparents settled, and she writes about this corner of Vermont as one with roots like the white oak, shooting 15 feet down into the bedrock for knowledge and nutrients. Her deep intimacy with the land gives life to the novel in every way, from the thrill of a hermit thrush song to the glassy, seductive pull of the Connecticut River. She is able to write these mountains — our mountains — as they are: cold, rough, rocky, wild, self-possessed, covered with animal scat. As her characters stumble past cellar holes and sudden sunlit stands of ferns, or stand proud and humbled in holy freezing rain, MacArthur makes the forest both lush, otherworldly and scarred, regrown, a battlefield.
This completeness and complexity gives Heart Spring Mountain, the ancestral home of the central character, Vale, its own kind of consciousness, which grounds and elevates the story. The characters — mostly women in a small family fractured by personal and generational violence—exist in this one place and time, where their individual fates rise and fall. But the land, being so alive, also lifts the story to a global scale, dying and living in geologic time, holding both the past and the future, and entwined with all the rest of the earth and the creatures on it.
MacArthur makes continued, skillful use of that non-duality — of being in the past and the future, of being doomed and saved, of being an individual and a collective at once. Vale, a tough, brave twentysomething bartender and stripper, both loves and rejects her heroin-addled mother, who disappeared during the storm. Vale left Vermont at 18 and made her own way to New Orleans, but she is also deeply lost, without a mother or a father, without any knowledge of her family history or why Heart Spring Mountain is her home. She observes the forest and the surrounding town minutely, a dispassionate and generous witness, but she is also always looking at her phone for news of the world, other floods, other droughts, other families destroyed by violent weather.
Alongside the sundered mothers and daughters, this relationship of the individual within a global community is the novel's most important relationship. In fact, it's the frame that drives much climate change fiction. When the world itself is broken, how will the protagonist survive? What are her moral dilemmas when all the water is poison? How do people treat each other differently when you can't breathe the air? Where much literary fiction of the 20th century focused on what John Updike called and valorized as the "individual moral adventure," climate change fiction springs from the reckoning and exchange of people and nature. The two are equal, if only in literary terms, because climate change fiction recognizes, as novelist Amitav Ghosh noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books in September of last year, "the profound rupture that divides the world of today from the world of 1990."
True to its non-dualism, "Heart Spring Mountain" both follows and departs from the still-young genre. The majority of climate change novels occur in the near or far future, after the apocalypse ("New York 2140" by Kim Stanley Robinson is a best-selling example). MacArthur, however, sets us in the very near, very familiar past. There is no separation between us and the novel: it's our world. Novelist Ashley Shelby calls it "First Impact Fiction," which describes "our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known."
First Impact Fiction has an urgency to it that typical fiction doesn't: our world is literally falling apart, and what are we going to do about it? While no novel is or should be policy, fiction has the power to change our imaginations and our understandings of ourselves. If not a mandate, climate change fiction has the opportunity to care about the fate of the world and its inhabitants.
"Heart Spring Mountain" cares. It cares about the survival of the planet. It's pulling for the resurrection of its characters from isolated grief to community, to knowing one's history and dancing as the rain falls. It cares for the healing of generations of wrong, from Vermont's forced sterilization program in the 1930s, which targeted the poor, the disabled, the French-Canadian, and the Abenaki, to modern-day protests against crony capitalism. It cares that the world keep on going, even when our choices are few and poor.
Fiction that cares can trip on overt allegory, wherein characters are mouthpieces for progressive moral positions. While "Heart Spring Mountain" is transparent in its morality and vision of survival, MacArthur avoids allegory because she knows how to sing. A musician and songwriter, and descended from the same, MacArthur on the page makes music. She sings in a way that makes the reader's ear dance.
Clauses slip in between verbs and modifiers, like a hand on the small of the back. Sentences start at the verb, no subject, like a stomp on the dance floor. A colon tumbles into another colon and into a third, like Bonnie, racing across a cornfield and ecstatic at the swimming hole, like her wild love for Vale, like her seeking, always, for meaning. When an odd, passionate woman who lives with a one-eyed owl in a hunting shack on Heart Spring Mountain and writes letters to the trees, when she gives birth, MacArthur's sentences pound with hard verbs, race into each other, get heavy and wicked as iron swords. Earthbound words anchor the airy themes—piss next to death, dirt next to love, tequila in a dusty cabin wallpapered with "New Yorker" magazine covers where a woman discovers a revelatory secret about her son's and niece's ancestry.
The constructions of her sentences also mirror the emotions and choices of her characters, creating a logic and love for these people that lift them above allegory. Their bodies are their own, rendered carefully and consistently. They may be part of a collective, and part of MacArthur's world-vision, but they are sovereign, too, doing what they will beyond the borders of this book.
They might meet us, in fact, because we live just outside the book. Tropical Storm Irene was our flood. That water changed our landscape and our communities, and that trauma affected us, will affect us. We, along with Vale and Bonnie and Hazel and Danny and Neko and Deb, are searching for the stories to make sense of the past and the future. Climate change is our life too.
There will be an official book launch on Jan. 11, at 6 p.m., at 118 Elliot Street. There will be a reading, food, a Whetstone CiderWorks cash bar, and music. This event is co-sponsored by Everyone's Books and the People, Places, and the History of Words in Brattleboro project, a new National Endowment for the Humanities-backed effort to explore and celebrate the rich but undersung presence and legacy of writing, publishing and printing in our region. Twenty percent of all book sales support the People, Places and History of Words project.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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