Friday, October 19, 2012


Lauren Groff

Where Have All The Hippies Gone?

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh
is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so
lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

Walt Whitman, from “I Sing the Body Electric”

I feel certain that Walt Whitman would have given his famous line, “I SING the body electric,” to Lauren Groff to use as the title of this book for absolutely nothing, and would have reveled and rolled around in the superbly sensuous life of her characters. You could describe Whitman, with his wandering and wonder, as the archetypal hippie traveling the roads of America looking for community. This enchanting novel of the hippie commune of Arcadia would have surely entrapped him. It certainly entrapped me!

Arcadia is both a mountainous region of ancient Greece and also a real or imaginary place offering peace and simplicity—a perfect name for a commune. This is where our main character, Bit, is born. His parents are, on the surface, archetypal hippies. His mother Hannah, in my mind, looks and feels like Joni Mitchell; his father Abe, like Abbie Hoffman. A father of one of this small band of peace-loving and dope-smoking citizens gifts the group with 600 acres and a rundown mansion in upstate New York. He only wanted contact with his son and figured that the only way he would get it would be through giving. This rings so completely true, as many of the dropouts of the ’60s really did jettison their wealthy parents and stomp on them pretty hard.

But there is trouble in paradise right from the very beginning. There is more than one alpha male and you know what that means—escalation of plot. Handy, the guru of the group, is a musician and spiritual head of the commune. When he and a few of his groupies have to go on tour for a few months, Abe, obviously the most intellectual and philosophical, decides that the mansion must be repaired so that the commune can have a roof over its collective head. He is a brilliant leader and the hive hums while Handy is away. The mansion is converted and of course when Handy returns he is threatened and so the tension begins. Over the years the commune grows from a mere 60 soy-loving folks to over 2000. You can imagine what kind of struggles constantly unfold.

Groff tells the story through the eyes of Bit, who doesn't leave the commune at all until he is in his late teens. Bit is slow to speak but he has other channels open. His companions are light and trees and sound and bodies. Groff often bends language like light going through a prism. Sometimes it doesn't make immediate literal sense but the effect is gorgeous and memorable:

Time comes to him one morning, steering in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he's flapping about to amuse Eden's russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop.

I actually felt like I was in a loop while reading Arcadia—a loop of Whitman and Groff, hippies and the earth. Although the characters endured much sadness and many challenges, I almost felt like I was in a state of grace while reading. I did not ask any more delight—I swam in it, as in a sea.

- Barb Minett

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