My final book of 2012!
There are some sort-of-spoilers ahead, but if you know the plot of the book, you can probably guess what will happen. I don’t give away anything major, but talking about the timeline will give strong hints at what happens in the book.
Arcadia was a great read because I liked it a lot right away, then felt uneasy as things fell apart, then was depressed by the end, but still a little hopeful. The book takes a predestined path, but I still had hope that there would be change. I immediately wanted things to work out and end well. While predestined, it was in no way boring or clichéd.
The book starts as a group of hippies settle down to create a utopia where everything works because everyone works. Little Bit is born as the caravan is heading to Arcadia to set up home. There are older children, and more to be born, but Bit is the first commune baby and his tiny body (the littlest bit of a hippie ever made) marks the birth of their beginning.
Flash forward five years. The commune is thriving under the guidance of Handy, the group’s leader, although “leader” isn’t a term any of them would use. However, he guides the people into groups, organizes the work and everyone looks to him for instructions and approval. Bit’s father, Abe, is also well thought of, but it is Handy who rules the roost. The people adore him and crave his attention and love. He uses this to make everyone better and stronger. Groff uses this to make me immediately wary. Anyone with that much power over people is going to be able to use it for personal gain. Worst is when they think they’re doing the right thing and working for the greater good. But his people love him, and I miss his presence when the bus pulls away with most of the group with it.
As the story continues, the commune grows and what Bit sees and experiences is as close to perfect as anything can be. His parents love him, the community adores him and he delights in how everything fits together. Perhaps it is because this is the only world he’s ever know, but he can see that it is right. People do what they are best at and everyone works as one group so that no individual is lacking. They live off the land, they worship drugs and nature, they drop acid and plant gardens, and it is wonderful.
And like many wonderful things, it eventually all goes to shit.
I love the idea of a commune. My lefty liberal self wants everyone working together and doing what they love and what they are best at so that everyone has what they need. I like the idea of a small community where everyone knows everyone and you can rely on any neighbor in times of trouble, and also to celebrate goodness.
My realist self understands that this doesn’t work. Human nature doesn’t fit in this shape for long, no matter how many people want it to. As soon as there is one tiny crack in the foundation, everything begins to break. At first it’s a bit of seepage and the few people who notice it try to plug it up, but it turns into a crack and more water trickles out. Eventually it’s a hole and water begins to pour until finally it shatters and thunderous rivers wash away almost everything that was left.
Arcadia doesn’t stand a chance.
The hardest thing for Bit is that his parents believe in the common good so Bit believes in what Arcadia has the potential and power to be. But human nature and the outside world push against this until it’s wrecked. People begin to define what Arcadia means to them as an individual and don’t understand that it is a community. Some people work hard, others stretch out and enjoy the rewards. I wasn’t sure if Handy saw what was happening. If he did, did he care? He’s almost always drugged and seeing visions and continues to gather the people around him so he will be loved and adored and praised.
As years go by, Bit is forced to come to terms with what was and how to incorporate it into where he is now. If everything changes, can you hold on to the ideals that you believe in? What happens when other people remember the same events with anger or sadness or horror? How is it that his version of Arcadia is so different than his friends’ and is it best to let things go when you know that no matter how much you love it, you can’t have it?
The character of Bit makes this story. I wanted to stay with him and I wish he was in other books, even if he’s only in the background. He’s not perfect and he often steps back from what is happening, but it is fascinating to see someone who was lucky enough to be raised in an environment that was as close to perfect as it could have been for him. He becomes Arcadia and lives on with the ideals and hope and longing for goodness.