The first time I heard Robin MacArthur read, I was twenty-five and in my third semester of graduate school. Robin was a semester ahead of me, and she intimidated me, though I realized years later, when I got to know her, that she shouldn’t have, and that she definitely didn’t want to. Still, there’s something distinctive about Robin, something uncannily familiar and exotic, worldly and down-home, intimate and unattainable.
Her writing is like that, too: it’s many things at once, like the best writing is.
That first time I heard Robin read, none of us had published anything yet. Still, it was clear that Robin was going places. She read “Running Water,” an essay about her grandmother’s rugged life on a rambling old farm, and I cried at the end, amazed at the beauty of Robin’s writing and also the sadness, the grief at the end of the story—grief I realized years later was actually joy. When I became Robin’s friend, I asked for the story for the literary journal I manage, and miraculously, Robin still had it, unpublished and all. “I’ve always had bad luck with publication,” she said, her shrug perceptible through the emailed note.
The second time I heard Robin read might have been a year after the first. She’d had a baby and returned to the program, and now, we were graduating at the same time. For her final reading, Robin chose “The Heart of the Woods,” the second story in her new collection, HALF WILD.
I’ll never forget hearing “The Heart of the Woods.” It was beautiful, surely, just like “Running Water,” but there was a darkness to the story’s core that I still can’t get out of my mind. As Robin read, the afternoon faded into dusk outside. The story is about a woman who has found success in a Vermont town. Her father, still poor, lives in a trailer she visits one day—a trailer tucked back into the heart of the woods. In spare, wretched, lovely prose, Robin shows us these lives, rippled with past anguish that penetrates every moment. The story’s ending isn’t a slap, or a push, or a stab: it’s a slice with a very sharp knife. It’s something dark and sick and sad, and in the end, like all of Robin’s extraordinary stories, it’s the most beautiful thing the reader has ever seen.
Yesterday, I saw an old friend from the same graduate program, and I mentioned Robin’s book. “The book is about loving a place and wondering how you can leave,” I explained. “No, the book is about transcending a place, whether you leave or not,” I decided, correcting myself. My friend nodded, considering, and I changed my mind a final time. “The book’s about a hating a place,” I said finally. And to hate something you must love it fiercely. This is HALF-WILD: A kind of love that sometimes looks like hate. A place’s cruel grip on your heart. As resonant and tightly plaited as a novel, HALF-WILD’s eleven stories tell of those who both adore and despise their lives, their choices, their families and, most deeply, their land.
Awed, tearful, and mightily proud, I raise my glass to Robin, who showed us that it really can be done.