Joyous Lies is an intriguing mystery that delves into what became of the hippie communes of the ’60s and ’70s and the children who grew up in them. Margaret Ann Spence weaves a tightly knit story that keeps the reader guessing throughout the journey.
The point of view toggles between Maelle, a twenty-something botanist and PHD candidate, and her grandmother Johanna, a founding member of a commune called Joyous Woods. Three generations are caught up in a story of secrets and lies. Spence demonstrates so well how the decisions of one generation affect those that follow, and how the experiences of each generation are unique to themselves.
Along with other children, Maelle’s mother and aunt grow up on the commune during its heyday. They are the true “flower children,” running naked through the woods and living freely (until we learn of a darker side). By the time Maelle comes along, there are no other children living on the farm, leaving Maelle to a childhood surrounded by a few aging hippies still living off the land and trying to survive.
In the 1960s, Johanna and her draft-dodging boyfriend Neil, along with some friends, head up to Neil’s parents’ land for a long weekend of camping but never leave. Instead, they form a commune, living off the grid. People come and go until only the original core of three couples are left. Over time they learn organic farming and other skills that help them get by.
Giving little thought to their children’s futures, Johanna, Neil, and their cohorts practice free love, experiment with the drugs of the day, and share everything, including childcare. Of course, they love their children, but they are so caught up in the philosophy and ideals of communal living that many of the children become residual damage. Johanna and the others live in denial of this.
Maelle’s Aunt Abby gets to the heart of this generation gap when she says of the previous generation, “They all came from families that gave them plenty of affection, so they had the courage to go out on their own and do radical things.” Without that kind of affection, Abby’s generation is lost and lack a sense of security. Their rebellion is to return to the bigger world of commercialism and take on middle class values.
More than once, Johanna and the other female members mention that because they were off grid, the women’s movement passed them by. We learn that the women are not treated as equals to the men. In fact, they are taken for granted and used. Utopian values don’t always manifest in actions.
When Maelle meets and falls in love with a handsome graduate student named Zachary, she takes him to Joyous Woods only to learn that he has been there before. As they begin to put pieces together, they learn of a dark and ugly past that their deceased parents share. The truth involves conspiracy, lies, politics and personal connections.
Meanwhile, a journalist shows up to make a documentary about Joyous Woods, one of the last remaining hippie communes. The reader learns much through her interviews, but her presence causes complications amongst the residents.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Spence writes a complicated story simply. It is mystery, thriller, romance, family drama and historical all rolled into one. And done well.