Heart Spring Mountain might be Robin MacArthur’s first novel, but it reads like it was written by a seasoned novelist at the top of her game. Lyrical and affecting, the book stars three women from different generations: Hazel, who came of age at the turn of the twentieth century; Deb, her daughter-in-law who joined a commune in the ’70s; and Vale, a millennial looking to find her way in the world while bartending in New Orleans.
When Tropical Storm Irene hits Vale’s tiny hometown in Vermont, Vale’s mother, a struggling addict, goes missing. Vale returns home to help with the search and reconnects with Deb and Hazel. It’s not long, however, before she discovers that her family holds secrets that go back generations – secrets that continue to haunt all three women in ways they’re only just beginning to understand.
This beautiful story of reconnection and generational trauma is set against a global backdrop of climate change, rabid capitalism, and addiction. In my interview with the author, who lives in Vermont, we discussed why she chose to connect the personal to the global, what we can learn from the hippies in terms of their environmental idealism, and why it’s as important to remember the past as to think of the future when making decisions that will affect generations to come.
Amy Brady: I’ve read that you built the house you live in.
Robin MacArthur: We live in a cabin in Vermont that has grown as our family has grown. We did all of the work ourselves. We harvested the wood on our land and milled it ourselves and dug our own septic system, buried our own electric lines. We put in a lot of muscle and grit and tears into this house.
Amy Brady: How has living in a place like that influenced your work as a writer and environmentalist?
Robin MacArthur: My grandparents moved to this land in 1950 and they bought an old abandoned farmhouse that had no running water or electricity, and was a mile off the main road. I grew up in that kind of house – off-grid, growing our own food. We had solar panels, an outhouse. So I grew up with not only a sense of the ways in which time passes on a single piece of land, but also with a keen awareness of resources. Because we lived so sustainably, I knew where the heat for our house came from, where our water came from, where our food came from. And that awareness of the preciousness of resources has influenced my work in pretty profound ways. In all my work, I try to illustrate the interconnectedness of the human realm and the natural realm.
I actually think about climate change all the time. I have two children, ages 5 and 9, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t fear what their future is going to be and what the future of children around the world is going to be … and already is, because climate change is something that’s happening already. Even though I’m a writer, I’m aware that we need to approach these things in as many ways as possible. So I dedicate myself to activism and policy change while also writing about these issues in my work.
Amy Brady: Most of Heart Spring Mountain is set in Vermont, but it opens in New Orleans, a city still reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. Why open your book there?
Robin MacArthur: I wanted to show the ways in which violent storms are everywhere, how the echoes of New Orleans and Katrina are everywhere and cannot be avoided by retreating to the woods or to the north. These storms will find us no matter where we end up.”‘Violent Click To Tweet
Amy Brady: Your book features women from three different generations, each struggling with problems that feel universal yet also specific to their respective peer group. What do you make of generational difference, especially the ways in which each generation deals (or not) with the world’s biggest problems?
Robin MacArthur: Hazel, the oldest character in my book, has grown up on the land with a conservative dedication to the local and to the family and doesn’t have any global perspective. Deb, who comes to Vermont in 1974, and who lived on a commune for a while, has all of the idealism of her generation and yet has also learned all the ways in which that idealism is flawed. Vale is ten years younger than me. In real life, I know so many people who are of Vale’s generation, and I see a distinct kind of lost-ness in them. The ground is literally shifting beneath their feet with climate change, and economic and political instability. I see them searching for answers in a way that I didn’t have to do when I was that age. In some ways, I see echoes of 1968 and the people of Deb’s generation who were trying to find new answers and ways of living. I just have so much sympathy and empathy and curiosity and love for this generation.
Amy Brady: In some ways, it seems like Vale’s generation is affected by some of the ways that Deb’s generation fell short, particularly in terms of the environment. Did the so-called children of the ’60s fail us?
Robin MacArthur: I love the hippies! I love their idealism and most of the efforts of the back-to-the-land movement. I see the repercussions of that movement here in Vermont where we had 35,000 people move here in the ’60s and ’70s to join communes or go back to the land. It was a huge population influx that wildly altered the culture of Vermont, and for the most part, it altered it in really beautiful ways. But I also see how the hippies failed on the globalism front, how they failed to take responsibility for the woes of the world and to see the world through a racial lens with an acknowledgement of their own privilege. I have a lot of hope for this current generation. They are wiser and more aware and have the opportunity to take the best of Deb’s generation, learn even from Hazel’s generation about resiliency and hard work, and bring their own passion to making change.
Amy Brady: Were you in Vermont when Tropical Storm Irene landed?
Robin MacArthur: I was. We were living here when my daughter was 3 years old. We were lucky: Our house didn’t take any damage, but our road was washed out in both directions. And when I say washed out, I mean 100 feet of road was completely gone. And the paved roads that take us to grocery stores and gas stations were completely gone as well – at least 10 miles of road destroyed. We were completely cut off. But our neighbors came together and we fed each other. We brought gasoline and generators to each other. It taught me of the importance of knowing your neighbors so you can help each other during tragic times.
Amy Brady: Something that frequently comes up in my interviews with writers who address climate change in their work is the fact that humans tend to be both shortsighted about our future and disregarding of our past, in terms of our personal lives and in terms of public policy-making. Are we too focused on the here and now?
Robin MacArthur: Yes, but I hope that’s changing. That’s definitely a theme in the book: My characters explore the wounds of the past, acknowledge traumas and violence so we can move forward and heal ourselves both personally and globally. I think until we start embracing the past and acknowledging our failures we will continue to repeat them.
The book is also about the interconnection between the personal and the political, and the local and the global. By writing about a small town in Vermont I also wanted to weave threads of globalism and how the way that we use resources affects the entire world, and the ways in which tragedies of the entire world affect us. I wanted to make those bridges repeatedly. I also wrote this book with a lens for climate change. I really wanted that issue to be at the heart of the book. It’s interesting how some reviewers see it through that lens while others view it through a more personal lens, and I’m glad that it can be read multiple ways depending on where the reader’s worldview is.
Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, published January 9, 2018)
Robin MacArthur lives in Vermont in a cabin she built herself. She is the author of Half Wild, which won the Pen/New England award for fiction in 2016, and is the editor of Contemporary Vermont Fiction. Heart Spring Mountain is her first novel.
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.