Book Review

Melissa Helton on
a novel by Silas House
Algonquin, 2022


Dystopian and post-apocalyptic books aren’t really my jam. They stress me out too much. Likewise, the immensity of the ocean has always terrified me. So, imagine me as a reader, 30 pages into Lark Ascending, where our protagonist is a young man fleeing a dystopian and post-apocalyptic United States to cross the violent and deadly ocean to seek refuge in Ireland. 

I think the stress of those first chapters aged me at least a year, and I actually put the book down. 

Then I attended the Kentucky Book Festival at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington in October and heard author Silas House speak about the story. I immediately went home and jumped back in.

While in conversation with David Arnold at the festival, House discussed the themes in the novel. He said, above all, Lark Ascending is a story about personal and collective grief. Indeed, as the dust jacket declares, Lark is the sole survivor of the trans-Atlantic voyage and loses everyone. In parallel, the larger scope of Lark’s world is collective grief as climate change, war, and repressive religious fascists gaining control over governments causes persecution, violence, death, destruction, and global suffering. 

It is not hard as an American to connect to the exploration of collective grief. We have daily mass shootings, deliberately encouraged poverty, a crippling opioid addiction crisis, lack of universal healthcare, underfunded schools, raging misogyny and racism, and more. Anyone paying attention to US politics over the past decade can see how the base fears and hatreds of citizens can be enflamed to the point of folks justifying the repression of freedoms, denial of equality, and enactment of violence on fellow humans.

Moreover, the US is in the midst of an identity crisis, a domestic battle over culture and who will be allowed to live in this nation and how and under whose control. Certainly this makes House’s novel painfully relevant and timely. We see Lark on the other side of it, what it could be like after the “Fundies” get control and what it could be like if their hateful power goes unchecked to the point of becoming authoritarian. 

But don’t yet despair. 

At the book festival, House declared the novel a “hopeful end-of-the-world scenario.” And it does have a hopeful, happy-ish ending. The book is an elderly Lark telling his life story in recollection, so you know from the beginning this kid is gonna make it to old age. And as House has said publicly to quell readers’ apprehensions, we don’t need to worry about Seamus, the beagle Lark befriends. The dog isn’t killed. 

House also said the story is about the desire to feel safe, and as a reader living in this point of US history, where the feeling of safety is continually under threat (from my neighbors trying to prevent LGBTQ+ liberation and revoke women’s equality each time they go to the voting booth, to dropping my kids off at public schools every morning knowing it is completely possible they could be victims of a shooting before lunch time) I can certainly connect to the characters seeking safety throughout the story. 

In the middle of the book, Lark says the survival skills he learned seemed in conflict, that the search for safety oscillates between two decisions: to keep moving or to be still.

The first was to Keep Moving, to never give up. This had always been my parents’ mantra, usually articulated in the times when neither of them thought they could go on, but somehow always found the strength to do so when they uttered this little sentence, as if the two words themselves supplied energy that kept them moving.

The second was Be Still. This was more often something my mother had whispered in times of upset and when we had to hide. Or times when we needed to collect ourselves so that we didn’t lose our minds. I remembered her, cooing the words to me. A whisper, really. A prayer. Be still. And in its own way this was an instruction on not giving up, too (121).

Lark Ascending is a love letter to those who don’t feel safe where they are, especially when being threatened by outside forces because of who they are, what they believe, or whom they love. 

This echoes a common human experience. Most Americans have a history of migration, immigration, or refuge-seeking in their own families. Why did these ancestors feel compelled to leave behind what they knew? What where the factors that shifted them from being still to moving forward? In the past decade, I heard many contemplate becoming ex-patriots because things in the US were unsuitable or downright hostile toward the life they wanted to live. As a US citizen with children and a dual citizenship in the United Kingdom, I have, at times, strongly considered this myself. 

This is clearly seen on a regional scale as well. The age-old debate for Appalachians of whether to stay or go elsewhere is such a common experience it verges on cliché. Every Appalachian has to answer that question for themselves, and often repeatedly. Also, regarding political and cultural injustices, we all have to make the decisions of when to keep still (hold our tongue, let it go, pick our battles), and when to keep moving (speak our minds, call out bigotry and misuse, fight back with activism). 

These are not easy decisions to make.

Lark Ascending is a love letter to those who don’t feel safe where they are, especially when being threatened by outside forces because of who they are, what they believe, or whom they love. 

The novel takes place mostly in the mountains of Maine and then Ireland, and we can see this as a love letter to nature as well. Lark says “If anything in this world was holy it was a tree. This much I knew for sure” (134). Before becoming refugees, Lark and his family hid out in the Maine forests, where Lark spends a mostly happy youth and discovers love. We see throughout the story how caves, bushes, and trees provide safety in seclusion. This becomes one of the struggles upon walking across Ireland, when there are few woods to hide in. Being away from the trees means exposure and is imminently dangerous. 

There is much to say about the beautiful language and place-making throughout Lark Ascending. There is much to say about the ties to our American past and present (anti-queer policies, religious fanaticism holding political power, forced sterilizations, concentration camps, borders closed and inhumane to desperate souls seeking asylum and opportunity). There is much to say about the conflict between community being a source of safety and comfort and community being a source of danger and fear. 

Lark Ascending can also be seen as a cautionary tale about beliefs. Lark’s mother, at a low and hopeless point, declares there is nothing beyond the immediate human world, that prayer is pointless. As he reflects back on that moment as an old man, Lark says:

I didn’t know what there was to believe in, but I had always felt there was something, humming in the air around us, even if I couldn’t name it. . . . Now that I am an old man, I know that there is much to believe in, although I do not have a single word for it the way some people do. To be too certain about belief is a dangerous thing (102).

Lark’s caution to remain flexible in our beliefs is a philosophy lacking in much of the American population. Through our families, schools, religions, and cultural exposure, we are programmed with ideas of what the world is like, how it operates, and how it should be. We rarely question the logic or veracity of those lessons, and if we lock in those worldviews (which can be corrupt, immoral, and simply unfactual) and never review or revise them, we can be terribly dangerous.  When we do this, how many murky, complex situations can we be ignorant of? How likely are we to become stubborn and vehement in defending our beliefs when challenged? How many ways do we refuse to learn and grow? By not living as Lark cautions us to, by locking in our beliefs as True and Right and never reviewing and revising them, we are very dangerous indeed as individuals, communities, and a nation.

So I would agree with House, that this is a hopeful end-of-the-world scenario, if Lark’s world learns from its mistakes, if it examines its beliefs and misconceptions and how they lead to active horror and destruction. If I step back from Lark into reality, do I have hope for our world? On the one hand, I see those fighting for and profiting from denying facts, dehumanizing people, and permanently damaging the natural world for temporary dollars. They don’t look at the past and learn how to avoid repeating travesties.  They don’t question their pre-programmed constructs. On the other hand, I see in the last decade how people have become involved, become active, deliberately set out to learn and help. I see a younger generation coming of age who refuses to pass on generational and cultural trauma and dysfunction. I have to hope that with a critical mass of people interrogating and refining their set of flexible beliefs, we can avoid the worst of the possible futures, and maybe even improve things. 

Maybe then, like Lark, we too will be able to ascend.

Melissa Helton is Literary Arts Director at Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky where she coordinates creative writing and literature programming for the community and area schools. Her work has appeared in
Shenandoah, Appalachian Journal, Norwegian Writers Climate Campaign, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and more. Her poetry chapbooks include Inertia: A Study (2016) and Hewn (2021). She loves everything about books and reads at least 100 a year.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


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