Tuesday, March 13, 2012


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Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, 2012, 289 pp

This book is amazing! Because I had reservations about her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, I was wary but Lauren Groff has exceeded the promise I felt in one of her early short stories and has broken the spell of the sophomore novel curse.

Arcadia is a hippie commune in upstate New York. The founders spent some time as nomads, traveling around the country in a calvalcade of broken down trucks and vans, until one of the members inherited the New York property. How we did relive the caveman history back in the day.

The somewhat hapless but utterly endearing hero is Bit, born soon after the group arrived at Arcadia, when they still lived in their vehicles and in tents. He was always small and got his name, Little Bit, from the charismatic but cracked musician Handy, around whom the group revolved. Bit's mother is Hannah, who suffers from depression. His father Abe, one of the "leaders" in a leaderless community, is strong, tireless and the kind of guy who gave hippies a good name; the kind we all tried to be.

Yes, I was a hippie, from 1969 to 1973. Along with my first husband, we made our trip to California in an Econoline van, camping, smoking weed and hash, eating vegetarian food, and attempting to create a Free School in San Francisco. Later we had two sons, started the first Macrobiotic food store in Ann Arbor, MI and lived communally with friends.

So I know that what goes on in Arcadia is true, not exaggerated and certainly not watered down. Lauren Groff writes like the daughter of hippies, which she very well may be, but unlike many hippie progeny, she is not bitter or resentful or mocking. She has captured the spirit, the underlying philosophy and purpose of that segment of the generation who though we had invented a counter-culture.

When Bit is a young teen, Arcadia comes apart. He is thrust into the "outside" basically grieving for what had seemed to him a paradise and for Helle, the love of his life, who is the daughter of Handy and a very fucked up young lady. The rest of the novel is about how he survives, copes, raises a daughter, and tries to follow the dream as he saw it.

This is a sad, sad book. As sad as a Child ballad, as sad as the story of mankind, as sad as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The writing is so beautiful it hurts. Bit's life is a tragedy but not a hopeless one. Many from Arcadia were ruined but I guess not any more than the percentage of ruined people who come out of any generation, any social strata, any cult, any war.

There will always be survivors who hold to the fundamental truths and do their best to live by them, come what may. Bit is a bit like Jesus, a bit like Job, a bit like any true hero, and a bit like you and me.

I suppose there will be critics, gainsayers and readers who don't get it, but if Arcadia is not one of the most talked about novels of 2012, I will be surprised. Actually, I will be bummed. Please read it and talk among yourselves or leave your comments here.

(Arcadia is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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