Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Vermont-bred Vale, sick of cold weather and small town drama, is finding a life of sortsheart spring mountain in New Orleans.  She distanced herself from her mother Bonnie years ago.  Bonnie, a heroin addict and a little bit crazy, then goes missing during a major storm in 2011, and when Vale learns of this from her aunt Deb, she takes the next bus back to a Vermont ravaged by flooding.

The only members of her extended family still living at the family’s home place are Vale’s great-aunt Hazel, the grounded one of the family who is now losing her mind, and Deb, a free-minded individual who came to a commune back in the 1970s and never left the area; she married Hazel’s son Stephen, who has long been dead.

As Vale furtively searches for Bonnie, the home and family she swore off of become more of an anchor than she would have thought.  Deb in particular is a kindred spirit, and is game to help Vale sort out family history, specifically that of Bonnie’s mother Lena, the family eccentric who lived by herself in a small hunter’s lodge and died shortly after Bonnie’s birth.

As Vale parses out details, she finds out some shocking details about her home state, and fills in gaps in the family tree that have been ignored for years.

Vale’s narrative is only one thread of the novel; Deb, Hazel, and Lena all tell their stories in alternating chapters and timelines.  This is the biggest challenge of the book – keeping track of who is who and how everyone is related, and also taking on the book’s stream of consciousness style.

My impression is that Heart Spring Mountain is a messy book, but what a glorious mess.  The characters are real and flawed, angry and jagged and maybe just a little worn out from maintaining – whether it’s the futile search for a drug-addled born again mother, or painstakingly uncovering painful family secrets.

Maybe the book’s construct is to reflect the bigger messes of where and what they are – a rural setting modified by horrendous floods, and a family held together by connection to the land but divided by shame and sorrow.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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