Completely enjoyable novel – beautiful, different and so sweetly told I was on the verge of tears because so much of it hit rather close to home. It’s a “pay attention” kind of novel but that’s fine because the narrative sucks you in.
Bit Stone, our third person protagonist, was the first child born in the hippie commune of Arcadia which the “Free People” group started somewhere in upstate New York circa 1968. His mother Hannah and his father, Abe, are very much in love. Bit is very perceptive, the commune has pretty large number of residents and also a number of visitors and temporaries, some of which have “bad eyes.” He’s sensitive to sounds and smells and tastes – feelings. But he says very little.
They decide to remodel a large mansion one of them is given. Hard work, long hours, icy cold and grinding poverty. They get welfare, and food stamps, work to produce things to sell. They live a pure and vegan lifestyle – what started out as free love settles into couples. The women cook and do laundry, the men build the house except for one who travels with a band to earn money. The children, the “kid herd,” play and help, no school. There is some pot smoked but no hard drugs, no alcohol.
by Lauren Groff
2012 / 298 pages
read by Andrew Garman – 11h 8m
The years go by and Bit is 8 years old in 1974 – the year after Nixon said “I am not a crook,” the year of the oil embargo. National events are mentioned so we can follow the years.
The story is from Bit’s point of view starting as a newborn. He’s a very small and quiet child and although he doesn’t talk, he does watches and listen. He loves to lay in her arms. And he thinks about things. After the loss of a child, Bit’s mother falls into some kind of depression, but Bit and Abe love her and try to help. . He’s learned to read and helps the men in various capacities. he group helps. Bit thinks his thoughts and wants to help his mother. He has a good friend, Hella, who is a bit older but plays with him and they grow up together. He dreams some interesting dreams. Bit can speak but he rarely says anything – he feels things and dreams and he thinks a lot and he’s a very sensitive soul.
Private property is not allowed in the commune but that rule is broken from the start – there are old treasures and new stashes, some items tiny and personal others larger and more desirable.
While Handy and his musicians are on the road playing concerts for some money the group fixes the mansion under the direction of Abe. When Handy returns the mansion has 80 bedrooms (many tiny for children) and huge communal areas. And now there are a lot more people at the commune – some just turn up, some new people come back with Handy.
And now it’s the time of Reagan’s war on drugs (1984) which means the group is at risk of being shut down. There are hundreds now, all told, roughly. The helicopters scan the area and Handy takes charge and brings “ownership” to the discussion. They have to sell the drugs to pay their bills, they owe. Only the marijuana will make enough money and Abe and Hannah would rather go to jail than starve the babies – 300+ people including runaways and “trippies.”
Bit is now 14 or 15 and able to help on a more adult level. He’s also become sexually aware. They have a small secret stash of plants while others try sheep. He wants to go to college in the city when he’s older, in order to learn, but he also wants to return to Arcadia to live. Arcadia is his home. His deepest belief is that people are good and want to be good.
But there are “newbies,” people who bring with them different needs and ways which are not always so good for the community at large. There are small groups of “naturalists,” the “runaways,” the “newbies” and “singletons,” “swingers,” along with some families in buses in “Ersatz Arcadia.” And along with the new people and the times Arcadia changes, so that more rules have to be in place. Eugeni-culture a group of “breeders” is described by an old woman named Verda whose ancestors were tried an utopian experiment based on the Shakers but with lots of sex amongst the most spiritual.
Also a place for child-birth, and a “safe place” where the “trippies” try to overcome their demons.
Bit and Hella start taking some pills, Bit is in love with the somewhat older and more experienced Hella. Sex becomes more important. Differences arise. Bit is the one who is good deep down in his soul. And he takes up photography. – “Hella” and “Hannah” sound a lot alike.
The young males get caught up in the violence of punk rock. There is a stirring amongst the kids and the younger newcomers. They resent the authority of Hank who lives in the mansion and seems to very little work these days. A revolution may be in the works.
What if the pigs find the field before we can harvest?” – this should not have been spoken aloud – private stash.
Bit takes Hella to meet Verda and she warns him about her. It feel like foreshadowing of something we suspected – Hella is not a true spirit of the commune. And Bit has told Hella about the pot field. But he loves her.
Then comes Cockaigne Day and hundreds of visitors arrive because news of it has leaked out – Arcadia has its fears. Abe is nervous about it. Handy thinks it’s just for a few days – “the universe will provide.” A vote amongst the “council of 9” to allow the visitors – 5 yay, 4 nay. – Trouble is coming.
First Bit’s family finds 3/4ths of their “bud” is gone – Bit lies to his parents abbout having told anyone. Hella comes in drunk (rum). Bit loses his virginity and its not to Hella.
And Cockaigne Day is the centerpiece of the novel – it’s not pretty. Astrid, a Norwegian woman and Handy’s wife, returns from nursing school to warn and help them. Handy is nowhere to be seen but everyone else is there and piles of vegetarian fare (except for the lamb stew). Some of the visitors have contributed and Bit has never tasted chips. The kidlets get high on a sugar-buzz. The adults get high on the LSD spiked booze. Hetty drinks it and so does Bit, against his better judgement – too many there with permanently fried brains. And as expected, the affair becomes a huge hippie sex-drugs-and rock ‘n roll party – Bit observes a rape and goes for help – Hella/ Hannah/ Hella/ Hannah – Some “trippies” get away from their minders and are brought back by some Amish folks. And the next day a body is found and the police come to tear down the whole place looking for drugs. There are many arrests. Bit cries because Hella has betrayed Arcadia and now it’s destroyed. Even Handy is found and arrested on a lot of counts including manslaughter.
Arcadia is pretty well destroyed – the food, the money and many people are gone. Astrid sends Ike and Hella to Norway. Hannah and Abe consider moving – will stay until it becomes unbearable.
The “free store” is almost empty, rooms are empty, only 200 people are left. Out on bail, Handy leaves for Canada. Hannah and Bit talk – she thinks his anger is about infidelity – her response to being caught re her telling about the pot stash which got stolen is “Does it even really matter?”
Armand, a relative newbie who didn’t want to work, who resented Handy, tells Bit about taking the pot and Bit fights him, gets the pot, gives it to Hannah, but it’s too little and too late.
Ike is missing so Bit and his friend Cole go through the forest after him and the three come across a couple of Amish boys.
Then others leave – Hetta leaves – and now there are 60 people left. There is no horse or Hank to fix things. Hannah makes dinner by herself out of what they have left. And then 30 more leave – old friends, “family.” Finally Abe, Hannah and Bit leave but they say goodbye to Verda first and she gives Bit a little bundle – a scrimshaw, papers and some cash. Very, very sad.
The world is brand new to Bit – he’s never seen it – and he’s so small and vulnerable.
“Aisles of the Blest” – Part 2 I guess – tells the story of the aftermath starting out maybe 25 years later – 2010? Bit is now in his mid-thirties and he and Hella had a 3-year old daughter, Grede – but Hella has left Bid – he doesn’t know where she has been for 9 months.
He’s painting a mural of Arcadia while he also teaches analog-photography (dark room stuff) at the university – it’s about learning to see. He uses neighbor Sharon as a part-time babysitter- she has a son.
He knows how Arcadia is now – a whole floor for Leif’s animation business – conference rooms and a tennis court. Abe squatting on the land and living in a new entirely eco-friendly house on the property. Hannah is in the desert and teaching history. There are other people around from the old days.
Bit tells stories – an allegory of sorts – ? – Bit is haunted by grief for Hella who just went for a walk and never came back. He’s stunted. The police were called – no word – friends stay in touch – no word – a detective is hired – no word.
There’s a lot of back story here – mostly how Bit and Hella they fared between 1985 (or so) and 2010 (or so).
And this is where I’m going to end my notes – no spoilers. – this is about 2/3 through.
What makes Hella tick? –
Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Arcadia (quotes refer to hardcover):
1. Talk about Little Bit. Aside from his name’s stated meaning, “little bit of a hippie,” what is the thematic significance of his name? What do you think of him as a child…an adolescent…and eventually as an adult? How does Arcadia shape his adult life—has it been a positive or negative influence? Finally, what does he come to understand by the end of the novel?
2. What do you think of Hannah and Abe—as parents and as members of the commune?
3. Do you think it’s right to sequester children in a commune like Arcadia, far from the reality of society? Is Bit, or any of the children, prepared for adult life? Or, on the other hand, perhaps you believe that the security of a protected environment gives children a chance to develop the inner-strength and values they’ll need as adults.
4. Talk about the hardships members of the commune face. Why do Hannah and Abe remain under such difficult conditions? Would you stay, even given a strong commitment?
5. Why do the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales hold such power for Little Bit? What do they express for him, inwardly, that he can’t find words to express outwardly? What dark forebodings might they hold for Arcadia?
6. What do you think of Handy—how would you describe him? What do you think of him as a husband and father? What kind of a leader is he? What role does he play in Arcadia—initially and over time?
7. Talk about Handy’s first reaction to the completed Arcadia House. What is Abe expecting—why is he deflated by Handy’s response? What eventually happens to Abe and Handy’s relationship—and why? At one point Handy accuses Abe of “fomenting discord” while Abe insists he (Abe) has stayed true to their original aims, implying that Handy has not [p. 123].
8. How do you view Hannah and Bit’s secret marijuana field? Were you rooting for their harvest to succeed—even though they’re raising an illegal drug to sell on the open market? Or do you find it understandable—given that Arcadia desperately needs money to feed themselves through the winter?
9. What is Abe attempting to teach the boys during his tutorial on Milton. What does he mean when he quotes, “the mind is its own place” [p. 120, hardcover ]? Is it? And how might that insight help Bit survive the expulsion from Eden and his life in adulthood?
10. Comment on the observation that “when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.” What are some of the stories of your life that have been shattered?
11. What do you think happens to Helle in the third part of the novel?
12. Did you have expectations about hippie communes before reading Arcadia, and if so, does the book offer any revelations—new ways of understanding the communal movement? Or has the book confirmed what you’ve tended to think of communes?
13. What are the ideals and goals of Arcadia…and in what way do they change over the years? Are those ideals eventually corrupted…or were they simply too naive or quixotic, making them impossible to live up to? If the latter, why? If corrupted, how?
14. Arcadia champions individual freedom. To what extent can personal freedom exist in a utopian community?
15. Follow-up to Question 14: The word Arcadia hearkens back to a mythical province of ancient Greece—a mountainous, pastoral area where humans and nature existed in complete harmony. Are utopian communities possible?
16. SPOILER ALERT: What led to the downfall of Arcadia? To what degree is Handy responsible? Or are other factors to blame?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
The main characters in the book, Bit and his parents, Hannah and Abe (and that’s what he calls them) along with Hank and Astrid and their daughter Hella, are only very lightly drawn. The minor players are numerous and only well drawn by type – very important.