Arcadia – Lauren Groff

Arcadia digs around in the compost pile of a 1970s commune in rural upstate New York and uncovers a lot that is dark and loamy. Into this entanglement of earnest people following some charismatic, slightly off-kilter musician/guru figure wanders Bit–a tiny boy whose mother Hannah and father Abe adore each other and him. Bit is the shiny person, the first-born child of the commune, the boy who gets lost in wonder, who was born mindful, who is smart and empathetic and makes a great protagonist, which he is.

As Bit sets out to conquer his fears and create manageable patterns in his world, currents of discord ruffle the surface of the group’s idyll. They rescue a ruined house on the property and turn it into a residence where everyone can live–big improvement over the caravan of trucks, buses and cars they inhabit when Bit is born. He grows up half and then wholly in love with his tribe of kids, especially Helle, the fragile and rebellious daughter of Handy,the leader.  The kids drop a little acid in homemade apple drinks and smoke a lot of pot as they hit their teens. Grow a fair amount of it, too. And Bit meets a witch in the woods–who turns out to be a cool old herbalist who keeps him on track in the middle of tough times.

Through it all, Bit is a philosophical wonder, incredibly close to his mother and luxuriating in the safe harbor of his parents. And then the cops come and wreck and raid the place–it has become a magnet for runaways and lost souls and nudists and druggies–the leader is hauled off to jail and people begin to leave. One night Bit and his parents slip away, too. Grown-up Bit is still part lost little boy in the woods. And he’s still in love with Helle, who is on her own path to perdition and disappears into her troubles.

There is a lot redemptive in Arcadia, the name the group gives their community and place. Bit and a number of the other characters are fine.  The book moves slowly but that is not a critique–it is the path of a life lived outside the bustling norm, rich in experience, focus and human connection. And that connection is what defines and saves the survivors in the end. Human casualties are the currency in the vegan, farming commune. But the human spirit is as strong as some of that pot they’re raising and even the rebellious children never escape the mark of their childhood out-of-time, their peaceful existence in the frigid cold, the hungry months and the warmth of family.

I made the unpardonable error of finishing it in one gulp after getting a ridiculously late start, so whatever I am writing today is doubtless incoherent. But Arcadia is very coherent. A good read and a good capture of a time and mindset few authors seem to get right.

Arcadia   Lauren Groff | Hyperion   2012

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