Rural Vermonters are eager to cut loose from the responsibilities of work, family, and community in this debut story collection.
As the title suggests, MacArthur specializes in men and women who are trying to access an inner ferality. Sometimes they act out in nature, as in “Creek Dippers,” in which a mother and daughter go skinny-dipping, or “Maggie in the Trees,” narrated by a man who conducts an affair with a married woman in a cabin in the woods. The lightly linked stories all take place in a fecund, unpaved region of the state that seems to sanction bad behavior: “God’s Country” is written from the perspective of an elderly woman whose grandson is using her falling-down barn as a meeting place for a white-power group. Many of the conflicts are more interior, though, as is the case with the narrator of “The Heart of the Woods,” who married a wealthy real estate developer but comes from lower-class logging stock: “How many years will I have to walk this line—trying to prove myself in both worlds I belong to?” In the best-turned story, the concluding “The Women Where I’m From,” MacArthur captures the subtle and irresistible pull of place as the narrator returns home from Seattle to care for her ailing mother. (“What is it, this tether?”) Lacking many options, women tend to lapse into bad relationships. Meanwhile, 10 join the military to meet their fates in Vietnam or the Middle East; the young mother of “The Long Road Turns to Joy” finds her Buddhist calm challenged by her son’s decision to enlist. MacArthur writes about all this with intellectual force and grace, though also with an evenhandedness that doesn’t always match the subject matter—one wishes for a little more wildness in the prose. But she’s mapping unexplored territory.
A promising debut and admirable survey of adolescent and middle-aged crises in rough country.