“Lark Ascending” by Silas House

What with climate change and ineffective, unstable democracies, no wonder many novelists have penned apocalyptic stories in recent years. Renowned Southern author Silas House is the latest to try the genre, crafting a poignant tale, Lark Ascending (Algonquin Books, 2022).

The title comes from a George Meredith poem of the same title. The novel’s final section is introduced with a quotation from the poem:

Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord

Like Meredith’s poem, House’s novel is, at heart, a tribute to the beauty of wild things and the joy we can find in them. House’s language is often poetic, particularly when describing the natural world. The novel reads easily, with the pages flying by.

House’s narrator in the first section, Lark, is an elderly man looking back on a journey he made with his parents. They cross the Atlantic to escape the fires, famine, and fascism that have overtaken the United States. The rest of the world is similarly troubled. The family hopes to reach Ireland because they are still accepting refugees. House’s description of the terrors of the crossing—the storms, the deaths, the sickness—is horrifying. The crossing sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Yet, despite all the horrors, life in this changed world is still worth living. Beauty and love can still be found; memories can still provide strength.

The novel’s second section is a flashback to the time known as “Before,” roughly equivalent to our current era. Part is told by a beagle named Seamus, who recalls the man who took care of him. Because of the famine, authorities are killing all pets. Seamus’s owner chooses to hide away from people rather than let his dog be confiscated. Lark also narrates his life from the time Before. Life is good before the Fundamentalists take over. Lark is fortunate to be raised by caring, educated parents. But the “Fundies” are rounding up and eliminating any who rebel against their teachings. They particularly target professors and intellectuals like Lark’s mother. As a horticulturist, she is valued because she knows how to grow plants and has preserved many seeds. The family joins another family of three on an isolated mountaintop to hide from the “Fundies.” They practice basic survival skills. Life under the Fundamentalists would be especially dangerous for Lark. As a homosexual, he belongs to a group the Fundies are eliminating. Lark falls in love with Arlo, the son in the other family, and becomes best friends with the sister. Eventually, however, the fires that have been devastating the rest of the country, encroach on their Maine mountaintop. His parents’ skills, they hope, will secure their passage to Ireland:

The seeds would be especially valuable when we tried to barter for passage across the ocean. My father being a physician would help, too.

The only other thing they can offer is their hard work manning and maintaining the sailboat through the raging sea.

In the final and longest section of the novel, the beagle Seamus and Lark come together in Ireland. Both have lost everyone they love. Lark is the only survivor of the journey across the sea. A fierce older woman joins their trek to the idyllic Irish community Lark’s parents told him about. The trio encounter many obstacles to reach the promised land.

As an old man, Lark offers this warning:

Zealots are always ready to take over. No one ever thought it could happen here, but we were overestimating human beings. Turns out it’s easy to convert more people to a cause that takes power from others, that thrives on meanness.

The novel suggests humans can find hope in nature. Lark says, “If anything in this world was holy it was a tree. This much I knew for sure.” Lark is not religious in a traditional sense, yet he doesn’t discount the mystical:

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.

But he remembers a Yeats poem his father recited to him:

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

Lark Ascending is full of such magic things: the deep love a human can share with a dog, the smell of cedar bark, the way memories of a loved one lost can give us grief and comfort at the same time. Most of all, there is magic in wildness.

The novel serves as a warning about the dangers the world faces as the climate is changing and as a warning about the dangers of humans arrogant enough to believe their beliefs are the only correct ones and are willing to force those beliefs on others. It is a fitting novel for our times.

Silas House

Silas House is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels and one book of creative nonfiction. Previous titles include Clay’s Quilt, Southernmost, A Parchment of Leaves, Eli the Good, The Coal Tattoo, and Same Sun Here. A former commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, House’s writing often appears in The New York Times and he has been published in The Atlantic, Time, The Advocate, Ecotone, Newsday, Garden and Gun, Oxford American, and many other major publications. House is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His awards include an EB White Award, the Storylines Prize from the NY Public Library/NAV Foundation, the Nautilus Award, the Appalachian Novel of the Year, the Hobson Medal for Literature, and many others.



  1. Fascinating. Another book to add to the stack.

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