Book Review: Half Wild
Yeah, I know. Vermont isn't New Hampshire. But much of rural New Hampshire looks a lot like the Northeast Kingdom across that massive Connecticut River – rolling hills and rotting homes, quiet country folk and their strange, free-spirited offspring, sipping beers, playing music on the crooked porch, and just trying to eke by happy.
The sun rises in the east and heads for Vermont. There’s farms and trailers and hippies and old men in sweaters pulling their aging cows out to the milking parlor, same as any other morning. I seek and enjoy literature about the place I live and the lives around me, and Half Wild joins the list of favorites.
In her collection of short stories, Robin MacArthur takes us down the backroads of rural Vermont – “Butterfield, Stark, Stickney Brook, Cowpath 40” – and into the shadows along the roadsides. Lives that could have been, lives that will be, mostly in broken down trailers hiding under trees by the brook, or on dirt roads leading into the woods.
In Love Birds, we join a couple in their seventies on their last ride through the neighborhood, gettin’ nostalgic with a couple of beers and some ham sandwiches, before the narrator’s beloved, Tub, passes away in the night. In Karmann, two girls cope with the temporary loss of one’s older brother (and the other’s crush) as he is shipped off to Vietnam. They cope with their new discoveries of alcohol and weed and rock ‘n roll in the beat-up old car behind the barn, but when he comes back, we find out who really suffers.
Right after I read Half Wild, I heard an interview with MacArthur on NPR. She and the host of the show both touch on how we are drawn, yet repelled, by the strange magic of the places we are from.
Robin MacArthur: “. . . that kind of haunted attachment to place and desire to be elsewhere and yet here we are in the woods.”
Host: “. . . the woods, the trees, the birds, the wild animals, the real and the mythical wild animals are such a part of the character here.”
The setting, of course, throughout all the stories in Half Wild, is the main character. It screams from the borders of the fields, from the shadows in the barn, the bubbling of the brook. There are stories of people moving back home from the city to their ramshackle family properties, not sure where else to go. There are stories of people waiting to escape this life, not sure what else is out there, beyond the old farmhouse. Everything is sad, but tinged with hope. They are the stories of everyone I knew growing up and who I might be when I grow up a little more.
They’re stories for getting lost. But having this book to read while waiting it out makes for excellent porchside pondering. And the view over the hills to New Hampshire is always right there.