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The Commons
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'Spiritual substance during dark times'

Robin MacArthur, a Marlboro writer, tackles climate change, heroin addiction, and women's struggles in her new novel 'Heart Spring Mountain'

Originally published in The Commons issue #441 (Wednesday, January 10, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.



MARLBORO—Robin MacArthur seemingly won the lottery when prominent New York publisher HarperCollins offered her a contract to pen a novel that depicts how climate change — and, specifically, 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene — can alter the course of land and life.

Then the 2016 presidential election hit her with an equally hard wallop. Could a leader of the free world actually doubt the science behind her book, the local writer wondered, and who would want to read fiction when reality had turned so surreal?

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“I realized this is very relevant,” MacArthur says, “because it’s about how we find spiritual substance during dark times.”

This week, the author is reaping praise upon the release of “Heart Spring Mountain,” which tackles global warming — as well as heroin addiction and women’s struggles — at the most local level.

“The resulting narrative is nuanced, poetic, and evocative,” Publishers Weekly opines in a starred review. “MacArthur empathetically depicts each of her characters in their wounded but hopeful glory.”

Purpose and place

The Marlboro writer credits two elder generations of her family for her sense of purpose and place — starting with her grandmother, the late Vermont folk singer Margaret MacArthur, whose work is preserved by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution.

“Music,” the author says, “taught me what poetry was and how to write stories and characters.”

Robin MacArthur spent a decade performing with her husband, Tyler Gibbons, in the duo Red Heart the Ticker, which recorded four albums, toured nationally, and appeared on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

But the self-described “wallflower child” has favored the solitude of writing ever since childhood, when she turned a shed into a poetry studio.

“I would mash up leaves,” she recalls, “to pretend to make tea.”

MacArthur went on to pen short stories as a teenager and take her first writing class in her 20s. But juggling marriage, music, two young children, and a hammer to build a family house, she kept her words confined to her computer.

Then HarperCollins offered to publish a collection of her short stories, 2016’s PEN/New England Award-winning “Half Wild.” The agreement called for a follow-up novel.

“There is no better way to force oneself to write a novel,” she says, “than to have a contract to write one.”

And so MacArthur came up with a three-generation family of characters — including a farming widow, a back-to-the-land dreamer, and an owl-loving hermit — and a plot set in the days and weeks after the Aug. 28, 2011, storm that ravaged her southeastern Vermont hometown.

“I quote writer Evan Pritchard in the novel, who says, ‘To do damage to the earth does spiritual damage as well.’,” she says. “This book is, in some ways, about that spiritual damage — what does it feel like to live in this time of disconnection — from community, from the land, from families — and this time where the most basic of givens — seasons, food cycles — have been upended? Will we have apples? Will there be honeybees? When and where will the next catastrophic storm strike?”

’What we do with this spiritual malaise’

That said, MacArthur doesn’t label the book “cli-fi” but instead “a meditation on what we do with this spiritual malaise.”

“I wrote the first fragments of this book nine years ago when I was first becoming a mother. The concerns then were how to love and give of oneself and do so well. I picked the book up six years later and my concerns were different. All I could think about were the ailments of the world and how they were linked. How the machinations of capitalization had led to a loss of connection to one another and to the natural landscape, to the wisdom of our ancestors. At that point the question of the book became: We are so broken, everywhere — how do we heal?”

The 368-page hardcover is set for debut with public readings Thursday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m., at Brattleboro’s 118 Elliot and Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. at Putney’s Next Stage Arts Project.

Library Journal may sum up her novel as “soberingly relevant,” but the book also contains what Kirkus Reviews calls “a sliver of optimism.”

“We find community and connection where we are,” MacArthur says. “We find communion in the most old-fashioned of ways — with food, and wine, and music, and art, and candlelight. Ultimately, this is a story about hope. Dark times are here, and more dark times await us, but love and connection and resiliency can be found, and will hold us when they are.”

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