Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

October 7, 2020

Karin Cecile Davidson's Playlist for Her Novel "Sybelia Drive"

Karin Cecile Davidson by Amy Shearn

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Karin Cecile Davidson's novel Sybelia Drive is an impressive debut.

Margot Livesey wrote of the book:

"In this brilliantly structured, morally complex novel, Karin Cecile Davidson explores the lives of two girls who have lost their fathers to Vietnam, and of the people around them. I love how well Davidson knows her fierce characters, and how close to the edge she writes. Sybelia Drive is a stunning debut."

In her own words, here is Karin Cecile Davidson's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Sybelia Drive:

Sybelia Drive arrived out of questions about war, about those who are deployed or enlist, either never to return or to return forever changed, and about those who are left on the home front—wives, mothers, sons, daughters—and how they surf the headlines, awaiting news, wanting and not wanting news. I fell to writing about the war that was the backdrop to my childhood, the war in Vietnam. During my teenage years, in the mid-1970s, I met boys not much older than me who served in the Army and the Marine Corps. They returned weary, quiet about their experiences. I knew better than to ask them anything, but the questions stayed with me. Later, the written words of Vietnam veterans and the music of the '60s and 70s provided much of the emotional landscape for this novel. LuLu, Rainey, Saul, their parents, their friends, and the community surrounding Lake Sybelia and on the military bases and villages in Vietnam are represented inside the songs.

“Girl” by The Beatles –1967

It’s October 1967, still warm enough to swim in the lake, wide-open windows sending stereo versions of Beatles tunes into the neighborhood. “Girl” sets the tone for LuLu’s complicated feelings for her new friend, Rainey. Though LuLu is a year younger and much smaller than tall, lithe ten-year-old Rainey, they share the experience of fathers gone off to war, mothers who love to laugh, and the idea of an older boy, Alan, newly enlisted in the U.S. Army, from whom they each wish something. And so begins the story of “the girl who came to stay.”

“Bookends” by Simon & Garfunkel – 1968

Another October, a year later. From her second-story window at Anna Clara Elementary, Mrs. Wild, the principal, faces east, thinking of the lives of the children on the playground, how they’ve changed over the past year. How fathers have gone to war, how children still swing as high as they can. Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonizing gives a brief, nostalgic glimpse of this time, of this moment with LuLu and Rainey.

“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield – 1970

Lillian Walbright floats on her back in the center of the lake, staring at “the white, blank April sky,” wishing for her son, Alan, to return home from his tour of duty in Vietnam. There is little solace in sending or receiving letters in thin blue envelopes, in drinking or slipping into drug-induced numbness, in the ticking down of the days or recording birds in the field guide, in searching down Alan’s wandering dog, even in learning that a son’s true sentiments may have leaned in another direction. The guitar wavers, time slows, and the world keeps spinning out of control.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, & Mary – 1963

Jack Walbright and his son Alan, along with their young hunting lab Lyman, head out toward Ponce Inlet, for a day on the water, bringing down mergansers in flight. Jack is proud, of military lineage, readying his son for the real world. Yes, there’s irony in placing this song here.

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” by The Beatles / performed by Eddie Vedder – 1970

After her mother leaves for West Palm Beach, Rainey is trying hard to navigate life with LuLu Blackwood and her family. The strands of her friendship with LuLu are tangled with complicated feelings about LuLu’s brother, Saul, and LuLu’s mother, as fascinating as she is frightening. There is no sense in revealing herself to anyone, including Alan’s mother Lillian, who on this April morning seems to have gone around the bend. Eddie Vedder’s voice matches the tendrils of curiosity and anger threading through Rainey.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles / performed by Ben Harper – 1970

LuLu’s father returns, profoundly changed, from Vietnam after nearly three tours. Ben Harper’s version of this song uncovers LuLu’s will to understand her father’s lyrical sense of his experiences, and its striking discordance clues into the household’s reaction to Royal’s state of mind.

“Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix – 1967

Royal’s first month in Vietnam is colored by the understanding of brotherhood, the roll and heat and scent of the landscape, the missions ahead. Jimi Hendrix’s voice and guitar drive the emotional terrain of these first weeks in country: “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?”

“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” by Dionne Warwick – 1970

Summer arrives, “the days drenched in heat,” and the nights stretched with sleeplessness. Minnie—completely in love, completely destroyed over Royal’s newness, his loss, the lingering nightmares of where he’d been—realizes the “lies and pain and sorrow” of her marriage. Nearly wrecked by her first husband, also a Marine, she refuses to become undone by her second.

“Begin the Beguine” by Frank Sinatra – 1965

Vita Hull owns the Marketessen, the grocery that Minnie frequents. She recalls her husband August, who swept her off her feet, then left her one day and never returned. Vita’s strength is apparent in how she supports other women, the ones who take care of their families, even while their husbands are fighting overseas. Their husbands, so unlike her own, the man who taught her the business and then simply disappeared.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles – 1970

The hot July day is divided three ways: Rainey’s thirteenth birthday, LuLu’s trip to town with her daddy, and an evening of sharing secrets and memories with Rainey on the shag carpet of their bedroom. Relationships are redefined, and still, LuLu understands that Rainey—“the girl with the sun in her eyes”—will always be there for her.

“Trouble No More” by The Allman Brothers – 1971

Royal’s world has shifted. In the heat of late summer, rabbits kick around in their hutches, a canoe cuts a line through the lake late at night, the crank of an ice cream bucket turns against rock salt and ice. Vietnam is still present, in Royal’s dreams and in visits from USMC Lance Corporal Titus Shields. Living now in his grandfather’s lake cabin, apart from his family, Royal considers new friendships and old intimacies. Possibilities surround him, but he’s in the mind of “trouble no more.”

“In the Morning” by Barry Gibb / performed by Nina Simone – 1966

An awaits the first day of the new year in her village in Vietnam, looking to the future and all the possibility the world offers her. Even as a girl, she will find her way, testing tradition and touching her feet to the floor first. Nina Simone’s voice offers hope and lightness, the piano upbeat. It is clear: the Americans and war have not yet arrived.

“Where to Now, St. Peter?” – lyrics by Bernie Taupin / music & performance by Elton John – 1972

Seventeen-year-old Saul wishes for more than friendship from Rainey, who has now been living with his family for over five years. His stepfather has moved out, his mother remains strained and distant, and his sister LuLu is acting out. Memories of his own abusive father—his mother’s first husband, Isaac—crowd in, and Elton John’s piano and Bernie Taupin’s line, “Something for nothing always ending,” circle Saul’s mind as he tries to keep his world from flying apart.

“Oh, Look at Me Now” by Frank Sinatra – 1973

Eva, living in an oceanfront bungalow in West Palm Beach, performs in nightclubs and entertains military men who shower her in gifts. Interviewed for “Look Magazine,” she recalls her life with Will McPherson, an Army Captain MIA in Vietnam, and makes excuses for her daughter Rainey’s absence, now a teenager, still living with family friends in Anna Clara. Sinatra calls, “Oh, look at me now,” and we see Eva in all her glorified loneliness.

“Que reste-t-il de nos amours? by Charles Trenet – 1973

Hélène, the elderly neighbor across the orange grove, watches Rainey and LuLu from her backyard. Rainey and she become acquainted, and memories of Hélène’s 1920s girlhood in Indochine call to her—the cousin Simone who came for the summers, her mother’s dislike of life outside France, the eldest cook Lam’s beautiful meals, her first kiss and eventual marriage. In her approaching moments of dementia, the present is confused for the past, Rainey and Saul caught in its threads. Charles Trenet’s phrasing beautifully captures Hélène’s chapter, especially the line, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”—“What remains of our loves?”

“Breathe (In the Air)” by Pink Floyd – 1972

The war in Vietnam continues, and Private James Williams is introduced, assigned to his battalion as a photographer for “Stars and Stripes.” Thrown into the field with members of Royal’s former squad, Lance Corporal Titus Shields among them, James lends a different focus on Vietnam, one that is as poignant as it is violent. Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” sends us straight there.

“White Room” by Cream – 1973

LuLu and Rainey board a bus to West Palm Beach, Rainey insistent about seeing her estranged mother, Eva. At the station in Melbourne, before they change buses, the girls swallow downers, and “White Room” threads though LuLu’s mind—“platform ticket, restless diesels, goodbye windows”—as the trip continues with Private James Williams seated just across the aisle.

“Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones – 1977

In Rainey and James’s Lake Sybelia cottage, photographs line the walls, revealing Rainey’s growing beauty, Minnie and Royal’s reconciliation, Eva’s silhouette, Saul’s sad independence, LuLu’s fierce look. Rainey considers the past and the future, her life with LuLu and her family and now with James, and LuLu’s promises of dead flowers at her best friend’s wedding come true.

Karin Cecile Davidson is originally from the Gulf Coast and now lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her stories have been published in Five Points, The Massachusetts Review, Story Magazine, Colorado Review, The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, an Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency, a Studios of Key West Artist Residency, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship. She has an MFA from Lesley University and is Interviews Co-Editor for Newfound Journal.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.