In the first scene of Heart Spring Mountain, a layered, multi-generational novel, a woman high on heroin wanders outside as 2011’s Hurricane Irene batters rural Vermont. Her name is Bonnie and she is thinking about how she has “just found Jesus” as she walks out in the wild storm. She disappears, leaving her family and community unsure of her survival. It is a thematically fitting beginning for a book that explores the interconnectedness of human suffering and how identities are shaped by natural disasters, spiritual beliefs, and familial relationships.
When Bonnie’s estranged daughter, Vale, returns to her ruggedly majestic hometown in search of her missing mother, she slowly uncovers disruptive family secrets. MacArthur’s nonlinear narrative structure shifts back and forth between chapters about Vale in the modern day and those focused on the early lives of Vale’s still-living ancestors. Her main characters are strong-willed women who have endured rough, hardscrabble lives (readers should note that some scenes in this book contain swearing and sexual promiscuity).
MacArthur does not hide her characters’ imperfections or selfish lapses. Instead, she maintains a compassionate gaze so the reader can see that they are generous, brave, and loyal, too—and there is so much more to these complicated people than their missteps.
Although the women in this novel grew up in very different times, they are similarly passionate about art’s enduring ability to “carv[e] a pathway through grief.” Some of the novel’s more memorable passages capture their rapt attention to poetry, music, film, and other creative works. One character, for example, finds great comfort in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty.” She reflects on: “How she loves each of [her family members], their flaws and all. That is an essential part of beauty, after all—its pockedness, its darkness and its light. Glory be to God for dappled things.”
Heart Spring Mountain is indeed a story of “dappled” and “pied” people, and readers seeking evidence of grace in an imperfect world will find much to ponder in this contemplative family saga. (Banner review)