In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Peggy Frew examines the complex relationship between a parent and her child with great insight and empathy in her novel Hope Farm.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“Frew’s (House of Sticks, 2011) second novel is an Australian cousin of T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, and other novels about the failures of communal living, with additional connections to Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky and Ian McEwan’s Atonement …The aching loneliness of almost every character is subtly and movingly depicted as generations of weak parenting and secrecy take their toll.”
I was born in the mid-1970s and while I can’t actually remember much of that era, it must be in my DNA because I’ve long had a preoccupation with the gloriously hopeful yet somehow doom-laced aesthetic of the Hippie Dream (which only fully arrived in Australia in the 1970s). There has always been a depth of feeling in me that’s triggered by, in particular, photographs of that time—a kind of bittersweet melancholy.
I usually start a writing project with nothing more than a feeling, a mood or aura that I want to invoke. Hope Farm was no exception, and the feeling, in this case, was this one of warm-toned loss and longing.
The novel moves back and forth between two lives: that of Karen/Ishtar who, a teenaged single mother in the early seventies, takes refuge from an oppressively religious family in an ashram run by a charismatic sect; and that of Ishtar’s daughter, Silver, who toward the end of a peripatetic and unusual childhood finds herself on a commune in rural south eastern Australia that has seen much better days.
When I think of the soundtrack to Hope Farm, two main elements arise. There is the music that belongs to the characters—songs from the seventies and eighties, which Ishtar and Silver would have heard as they went about their lives in ashrams and on communes and in the company that they keep. Then there is the music that belongs to me—songs that informed the writing of the book as the writing was being done, as well as the “background” music that’s always triggered that particular melancholic nostalgia for which I am such a sucker, and which paved the way for the book.
“Something on Your Mind” – Karen Dalton
Was there ever a vocal take more filled with resigned sorrow? I don’t think so. If I imagine Hope Farm as a film then this song plays over the final credits. It falls into the “background” category; I don’t think either Ishtar or Silver could have heard any KD. I’m not sure her recordings even got a release in Australia at the time of their making.
“Om Shanti” – Alice Coltrane
There had to be some chanting on this playlist. Silver grows up in ashrams run by a fictional organization called The Path, which I based on religions/sects such as the Ananda Marga and the Divine Light Mission. Even though they began to spread from India through Europe and the USA during the sixties these movements didn’t make it out here to Australia until the seventies—we tend to lag quite far behind. I’m sure that the kind of chanting Ishtar and Silver do is not nearly as glorious as Alice’s, but early on Ishtar does experience some badly-wanted transcendence.
“Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens
In 2015, when I was almost ready to hand the manuscript of Hope Farm over to its editor, Sufjan Stevens put out an album called Carrie and Lowell. It’s a very intense and personal record about a mother-son relationship marred by dreadful mental health and addiction troubles. I was at the stage of work where I was trying to step back and see the novel as a whole in order to recognize its primary concern (which isn’t always what you thought it was going to be when you started) and to then add any finishing touches that would help sort of crystallize this. Carrie and Lowell, full of darkness but also a sense of love that transcends the limits of its context, helped me to realize that the book I was writing was ultimately a love song to a lost mother.
“A Case of You” – Joni Mitchell
Ah, Joni. She had to be here. When Silver first arrives at Hope Farm, the hippie commune in the unwelcoming bushland of rural Victoria, she sleeps in a room she comes to think of as the “Joni Mitchell room,” due to a poster of Joni on the wall—the only furnishing other than a mattress on the floor. Silver wakes each morning “under the rough blanket as the early light coated the empty walls and Joni’s face greeted me, grave and faded.”
“Flame Trees” – Cold Chisel
While living at Hope Farm Silver, aged thirteen, walks out each morning on the gravel road through the windblown bush to catch a bus to school in a town some distance away—a rough country high school where her difference does not go unmarked. The bus is as dangerous for Silver as the schoolyard. “Flame Trees” by Cold Chisel—a classic bit of what’s known down here as “bogan rock” was released that year, 1984, and is what I imagine playing on the radio as the driver “took us, sliding on our vinyl seats, past soggy-looking paddocks that erupted every now and then into sudden, bald hills.” (P.S. If you can look past CC’s rendering of it, “Flame Trees” is actually a truly excellent piece of songwriting.)
“Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” – Nina Simone
Performances of songs from the musical Hair seemed to be a regular feature at hippie festivals on the east coast of Australia during the seventies (there is some excellent footage on YouTube). Nina Simone obviously wasn’t at any of those festivals—as with Alice Coltrane above, I’ve taken the liberty of finding a version that I like.
“I Threw it All Away” – Bob Dylan
While thirteen-year-old Silver is living at Hope Farm, she meets Dan, the closest thing to a good father figure she ever gets. Dan, a guitarist in his early twenties, is picking potatoes and saving money to move to New York City. The audacity of this dream and the quiet way in which he is going about reaching it make Dan very different from the rest of the Hope Farm residents—and result in Silver developing a potent crush on him. At some stage I had Dan singing this song while driving with Silver in his truck, but it didn’t make the final cut.
“One More Cup of Coffee” – Bob Dylan
More Bob. Silver makes one friend while she’s at Hope Farm—Ian, a gawky fellow misfit who lives on the next property. An amateur photographer, Ian takes a photo of Silver and shows it to her—a revelatory moment. “This was me; this was how I looked from the outside: a clever, tough girl.” While Silver’s nickname at school is “Hippie Shit,” in the privacy of the scrubland between Hope Farm and Ian’s family’s property she is Ian’s “Gypsy Girl.” Being vaguely objectified and fetishized for her exoticism (like the subject of this, one of my all-time favorite BD songs) somehow allows Silver to see that her difference might not only be a curse—that the sharpness and shrewdness she’s had to develop could also be a form of power.
“Missing You” – Laura Jean
This album came out while I was getting started on Hope Farm, and this song also appears if I imagine Hope Farm as a film. It would accompany the scene toward the end of the story where Silver, traumatized and helpless, having left many things including Hope Farm and her mother behind, aimlessly wanders the streets of Sydney. Laura sings:
I let the world flow into your spot
Walking like a child through Kings Cross
Staring people right in the eye
“All Gone” – Mick Turner
Mick is my partner, and while I was writing Hope Farm he was recording an album called Don’t Tell the Driver. We spend a lot of time not far from the Gippsland landscape in which Hope Farm is set, and this opening track from Don’t Tell the Driver makes me think of the wild charm of this place, where you can get these bright windy winter days in which every leaf seems to glitter. It’s a harsh, ragged kind of beauty—my favorite kind.
Peggy Frew and Hope Farm links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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