The story is vague at first, the how and why opaque as the amoeba grows, as the characters take shape and as the outline of what's going on takes its own time to form.
It begins before the protagonist is even born. Little Bit is the first child born to a group on caravan that eventually becomes a commune. He knows the memory took place before his birth -- a group of women, including his mother, washing clothes in a cold river, people singing old folk songs, a bonfire and a small caravan on the move toward their eventual home.
Before the skeptical reader gives up, know that Bit knows he knows the story because it has been told to him so many times that it feels as real to him as something he actually did experience. So is Bit's own story. He is, after all, "the first Arcadian ever" and his story "is another story so retold that everyone owns it".
This communal passing on of a story is the key to Arcadia, the latest novel by Lauren Groff. So is the sense that, while the novel takes place from the 1960s to the next decade, it is timeless, a tale the Grimm Brothers may have heard to pass along: "The forest is dark and deep and pushes so heavily on Bit that he must run away from the gnarled trunks, from the groans of the wind in the branches." The forest and the outdoors are as much Bit's world as the commune.
Young Bit disappears into the forest during a time his mother, Hannah, suffers from depression. He knows he is not her prince, but he still is on a quest to save her. Bit is living in a fairy tale.
He stays in a fairy tale for his entire life, as Groff fits what could really happen to a child born in a commune in 1968 through the glory days and the downfall, through the love and through the drugs, through the opting out of society and becoming a destination for partiers, into a "once upon a time" framework. Until that fairy tale quest, and even with the occasional fairy tale reference, the early Arcadia often feels like a rewrite of T.C. Boyle's Drop City, written with a child protagonist instead of the adult hippies. Other children's parents fight, the whole commune goes hungry and the ego of the ironically named leader, Handy, is on early display. It's not going to work, as all utopian societies turn out to not work.
But with that quest, Groff's intent emerges and shines through for the rest of the novel. Like the tale of the primordal creature who lived in deep waters in her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia's strength is from the power of storytelling as an ancient activity. Bit's parents are the kindly center of the tale -- the capable and loving Hannah and Abe. They know how to do things. Their emotions are real. Their dreams are both within reach and beyond the scope of humans with normal foibles and failings.
Handy's children, and those of the other original Arcadia settlers, like Bit, grow up removed from normal society. They don't eat processed food or meat. They don't watch TV. They see childbirth and naked adults, and smoking pot is the norm. Groff delivers all these facts without embellishment and without judgment. This is simply their world.
The fall from grace is a slow-moving one. One character has a literal fall but continues to try to make the dream real. Others fall figuratively but their actions turn the dream into a nightmare and the community falls apart.
Groff, instead of next showing how Bit adjusts to life on the outside, next shows us Bit as an adult, as a father with his path already chosen. While some readers might want to see Bit's journey, this is a writing choice that proves to be a good one. Instead of watching Bit cope with civilization in a coming-of-age story, we know that he already came of age before he left Arcadia.
Even though where he lives has changed (and all the children of Arcadia end up living in big cities, not wanting to be isolated), Bit remains true to himself. He lives with quiet integrity as the days go past. There is one incident where most writers would have Bit commit an act of folly. But instead of having to mutter "Oh dear, Little Bit, don't do it", the reader can instead see that Bit remains true to himself, to the way he was raised. It's sweet and one of the reasons to treasure Groff's writing so much. She knows how to make those little, lovely moments of humanity come alive.
It's only when both personal losses and a society crisis in the near future (a very plausible crisis) merge that Bit comes to his own turning point. But rather than an action to take or not take, Bit's turning point is how he feels. The key to his decision lies in the small moments of life.
Even as a young child, the small noticings are important to him, as when he picks an icicle: "Inside again, he licks it down to nothing, eating winter itself, the captured woodsmoke and sleepy hush and aching cleanness of ice. His parents sleep on. All day, the secret icicle sits inside him, his own thing, a blade of cold; and it makes Bit feel brave to think of it."
Capturing the small moments of noticing is a talent Groff possesses in abundance. Toward the end of the novel, it is in being able to recall these small moments, that the ability to turn a moment into a memory that can be recalled as a story, that the beauty of fairy tales at their homiest shines:
He sits in the rocking chair beside her. The women's noises fill the house at his back. He will make raspberry jam in his head, he decides; he hasn't done any preserving since he was a boy. He closes his eyes. At first he forgets steps, has to backtrack to squeeze the lemons, clean the berries, measure out the sugar, pluck the glass jars from the boiling water. But when he relaxes, things go vibrant. He feels the furry warmth of fresh raspberries in his fingers, and the smell rises up, sweet and tingling, made even brighter by memory.When things appear at their worst, Bit and the readers of his story are reminded we've survived bad things before. Maybe we will this time as well.
©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission