Vermont is one of those states awash in stereotypes, particularly now in the aftermath of the Bernie Sanders campaign. From the Green Mountains to the campuses of Burlington, it is a place populated (we think) by hippies, ski bums, and horticultural science majors with dreadlocks atop their heads and petition clipboards in their fists. The state anthem is probably “Fluffhead” by Phish. The state seal presumably features a marijuana leaf and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
But the Vermont of Robin MacArthur’s stories is a different state entirely. The collection is set among the farms that ring the fictional towns of Nelson and Vicksburg, climbing the sides of Whiskey Mountain and Round Mountain, wet by the waters of Silver Creek. From the right vantage point, New Hampshire is visible; the inhabitants are, in the grand scheme of things, only “a stone’s throw from Boston, or New York.” Even so, it is a place of profound remoteness (in worldview, if not in geography), characterized primarily by its connection to the land. It is a place of hard-won existences, where two centuries of habitation has done little to make life more hospitable. Its people dwell in campers and double-wide trailers, or in deteriorating farmhouses handed down through the generations. The ambitious offspring flee to more prosperous regions, while the rest remain to scrape whatever earnings they can from the forests and hayfields.
Half Wild’s stories span several decades, though the same recurring problems persist. The land grips a person at birth and tugs at them throughout their days like an old, ill-advised love. MacArthur’s subjects are painfully aware of the divide between here and there: adolescents who want nothing more than to leave and never return; grown children forced to come back to settle family business; elderly people realizing, in their final years, just what they have sacrificed to live in such a place. Even those who have managed to move elsewhere are forever trapped by liminal connections to the region of their birth. As the narrator of one story explains to her oblivious suburban-bred boyfriend in Seattle, “There are two worlds I won’t ever belong to. Home or any other.”
The women of the area particularly spark the author’s interest: their rugged pragmatism, the way they look to each other to find role models or cautionary tales. In “Karmann,” seventeen-year-old Clare and her friend Annie spend most of their free time pretending to drive a ’57 Karmann Ghia that has been left to rust in a field. The owner of the car is Annie’s brother and Clare’s crush, a young man who was recently drafted to fight in Vietnam. The girls fantasize about where they might travel if only the car could be made to run: “California was where we wanted to go most: a place our mothers had never been and would never go, a place where we thought no one believed in war.” Clare and Annie manage to keep each other fantasizing about the wider world for a while, though the temptation to settle into the local way of life proves impossible to refuse.
In “The Long Road Turns To Joy,” a lonely woman, Apple (a hippie who had moved to the region looking for an alternative life, only to end up, nearing forty, stuck in an unglamorous rural poverty) struggles through her days knowing that her son, Sparrow, is fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan. She thought she had raised him on flower power values, “Until the day after graduation when Sparrow came home and told her he had joined the marines. It’s the things you can’t imagine, she thought then, that sneak up and knife you from behind.” Now she must examine the ways she’s lived her life, and how that life might look if her son never returns from the war. The process involves many phone calls to her own mother in suburban Ohio, seeking the advice she’d spent her life rejecting.
Even those who succeed in escaping Vermont are never quite out of the woods. In “Where Fields Try To Lie,” a man returns to take possession of the family farm following his father’s suicide. An older family tragedy occupies the man’s mind as he drinks and ruminates within the walls of his childhood home. For him, the surrounding hills represent the perfect complement to his self-loathing: “it is when I am thinking like this—most often when I’m far away, and more than a few drinks into some bottle of Argentinian Malbec or expensive bourbon—that I become victim to the lies of nostalgia, that they seep into my bones and shade my memories of this place a soft, muted, and lovely gray.” The tragedy, when it is revealed, veers into melodrama—this is a line that MacArthur skirts throughout the book, though she generally manages to stay on the right side of it—but until that point the story is a taut and ethereal piece of writing.
MacArthur’s fluid, maundering prose dominates the book, making the reading experience, for all its rural desperation, primarily an enlivening one. Most of the stories are redolent enough of countryside archetypes that the reader is able to absorb the grief without being devastated by it. “Maggie In The Trees” has all the calamitous romance of a Scottish border ballad: a man whose life and daughter have left him moves onto the land of an old friend, only to begin an affair with that friend’s wife, Maggie, an indomitable avatar of the local landscape that is slowly being ruined by development. “She knew where to find the old cellar holes and the stone walls and logging roads that ran between them. She knew the deer trails and the overturned tree roots where bears slept in winter and a small cave on the far side that her grandma Sugar used to say was an Indian hideout. She stared into that cave, her eyes narrowed, as if there were ghosts in there whose voices only she could hear.”
There is a pining quality to MacArthur’s work that sometimes seems more rooted in the tradition of songwriting than in that of short fiction. Even the titles of her stories (“The Heart of the Woods”; “God’s Country”; “The Women Where I’m From”) read like a tracklist from an old folk album. Like those of the country songs that serenade the bars and parties of the book, MacArthur’s sentiments may not be terribly original or complex, but they are crafted in a way that invites the reader to indulge in a nostalgia normally shunned. She offers you a mason jar of something strong and sweet, and even if it isn’t the kind of thing you normally drink, there’s something about the atmosphere that makes you accept it, makes you pull up a stool. Because yes, the woods are beautiful tonight. And yes, you’ve nursed a broken heart. And maybe in the morning you’ll think otherwise, but for the moment you really don’t want any of it to end.