The title of Robin MacArthur’s Half Wild, a collection of short stories set along a short stretch of Vt. Rt. l00, invokes an important passage by Thoreau—“in Wildness is the preservation of the World”—and raises a question before I’ve read a page: is half wild a sort of compromise or is it in half wildness that the world today is going to be preserved? Nothing is simple in MacArthur’s world, happily for good readers, who don’t want things to be simple.
MacArthur writes about people who love trees and fields; who live hardscrabble lives, struggle, living in trailers, sometimes taking drugs, sometimes harrassing people whose skin is darker than theirs—people whose families in Vermont go back generations, living on land their grandparents worked. A few of the people want desperately to leave for places like Seattle or for a university, two young girls even sitting in a Karmann Ghia whose engine was blown, pretendng that they’re hitting the road. But the wild calls still—they return.
And it calls to a very different sort, too, young professionals, who can afford second houses on land carved out of fields, sub-divisions now littering the landscape. Tub suggests dynamiting those houses, gentle Tub, who has a knack with living things, horses, and is only trying to amuse his wife. Young professionals make very brief appearances in MacArthur’s stories, and, it turns out, they are people, too. A young trapeze artist, who with her partner, a dancer, bought the house Cora lived in (we meet Cora in another story), walks up a snowy hill above their house late at night to deliver a slice of pie to a frightened, lonely woman living in a trailer.
MacArthur’s characters suffer. Cora worries about her grandson, a good boy, who is starting to do nasty things. Apple is twisted with worry when her son enlists in the Marine Corps because he knows she can’t afford to send him to college. Jesse Maise’s three-year-old daughter drowns. But the stories aren’t dark. Sally Mae’s mother leaves her father, a logger who doesn’t always make ends meet, but he remembers that “The woods are something to be grateful for . . . be good to them.” Because they are good to us, the place “where you could quietly and, without a sound, start walking.
I start with Thoreau and will end with him, the idea of transcending. Hannah, the woman who escapes to Seattle, returns to Vermont when her mother tells her that the farm where she’s lived for forty years “is falling apart,” and she’s been diagnosed with cancer. Over the weeks with her mother, Hannah slowly becomes, like her mother, a “believer” in the wild—that catamounts are still in Vermont. And about that mother, who will probably die in her early fifties, how can I not feel hope when she characterizes herself as “Reckless. Powerful. All-knowing,” and wants to dance with Hannah and Hannah’s friend Kristy in the middle of the road at four o’clock in the morning to surprise and please a farmer, Jesse—the man who lost his daughter—on his way to work? When the dance ends, Hannah’s mother slips her dress off her shoulders, baring her small breasts, still standing in the road in Jesse’s headlights. Like Jesse, I feel at this moment “grief, astonsishment, wonder”—at many moments when reading MacArthur.
I don’t always want to thank writers for their stories but want to thank MacArthur for hers, wild, surprising, gritty—life is sometimes a complicated mess, and not many writers can get you to love the mess and the complications.
Robin MacArthur will be reading from her collection Half Wild (Harper Collins, 2016) at BigTown, as part of the gallery’s Joan Hutton Landis Summer Reading Series 2017, on Sunday, June 25, at 5:30 p.m.