The Laws of Harmony
Published by: Harper Perennial
Release Date: February 10, 2009
Thirty-two-year-old Sunny Cooper lives in Albuquerque where she struggles to make a living voicing radio spots, to hold on to her floundering relationship, and to forget the first eighteen years of her life, spent on Armonía, (Spanish for ‘harmony’) a commune in rural northern New Mexico. It was at Armonía that Sunny grew up a hippie kid, hating it, dreaming of a normal life with indoor plumbing, new clothes and a nuclear family instead of a constantly changing cast of strangers. It was there when Sunny was eight, that a freak accident took the life of her four-year-old sister, Mari, leaving her family fragmented and scarred.
Just when it looks as if the “normal” life she craves might be within reach, her fiancé Michael is killed in a truck accident, and she begins to discover that he was not exactly who she supposed. Questionable business practices come to light, making her a target for revenge-seeking scam victims, and a stranger appears, claiming to be a brother Michael never told her about. Still reeling from these revelations, Sunny uncovers evidence that Michael was having an affair with her best friend.
It is this last disclosure that causes her to bolt, selling all her painstakingly accumulated possessions and heading “as far West as I can go without flying over water.”
Coming to ground on San Miguel Island—ironically, in the town of Harmony—she finds a job waiting tables at the Ale House and begins to rebuild her life. Her first, tentative friendships are with cowgirl naturalist Freddie, hair stylist Trish, bookstore owner Hallie, and Piggy Murphy, the reformed one-percenter who tends bar at the Ale House and teaches her to ride a motorcycle. She even imagines the stirrings of romantic feelings for local sailor and carpenter JT Lakes.
When an unexpected reminder of the past sets up an emotional encounter with her estranged mother, Sunny recognizes that only by making peace with her history can she finally emerge from its shadow and claim her new life.
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“Hendricks is a bright light on the New Mexico literary scene. With carefully constructed prose, she moves the narrative forward as, from the perspective of a faraway locale, Sunny comes to terms with her past, including her relationship with her mother. Brimming with clever dialogue and complex relationships, The Laws of Harmony is an emboldening tale of one woman’s journey to take responsibility for herself, make peace with her upbringing, and learn what makes a relationship worthwhile…”
—Wolf Schneider, New Mexico Magazine, May 2009
“Hendricks has an engaging narrative voice that will pull readers right into this story of a damaged woman who is more resilient than she realizes.”
“Satisfying psychological depth and original characters help move along Hendricks’ latest.”
The Laws of Harmony began with an old clipping from the Taos, NM News. The headline was “Accident Claims Child’s Life at Party.” It was June 21, 1979—the last summer solstice party at New Buffalo Commune in Arroyo Hondo, NM. There were hundreds of people, dancing, eating, drinking, and of course using recreational drugs. Just as the sun was going down, about 8:15 p.m., two children, a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl who had been playing on the roof of one of the buildings, fell together through the glass skylight onto the stone floor below. The girl was only scratched and bruised, but the boy suffered two deep puncture wounds in the chest from shards of glass, and died within minutes.
The image haunted me. A party. Everyone having a good time, admiring the sunset, and suddenly there’s a moment that changes the lives of everyone present. The death of a child. I began to do that thing that writers do…What if the children had been siblings? Where were the parents? What happened to the family after the tragedy? With these questions, I began to write. I met my protagonist, Sunny Cooper and she began to tell me her story.
All writers know that a finished first draft is not the end of the process, it’s just the beginning. In working through succeeding drafts, I discovered that the death of Sunny Cooper’s younger sister becomes her defining moment, the prism through which she views the world forever after, the wedge driven between her and her mother.
As an adult, Sunny suffers another loss, one that sends her on a journey from her native New Mexico to an island in the Pacific Northwest, running from the past and towards a future which is, at first glimpse, unimaginable to her.
This journey also serves as a framework for contemplating a subject that has always fascinated me—how the present is shaped by the past. In Sunny’s case, her flight from her history only serves to anchor her more firmly in it until she realizes that the only way out is through the heart of the beast.
And ironically, it’s an unexpected legacy of the past that enables her to shake off the shadows of memory and step into a new life.
In the end, it’s a very small funeral—a graveside service.
Me and Betsy. A tall no-neck guy wearing a pinstripe suit who introduces himself as Matthew Herzog, Michael’s attorney. My old flame, Roy Addison. He’s got the beginnings of a paunch and a seriously receding hairline and a new, young wife.
He hugs me for a second too long and says, “I’m so sorry, Sunny.” New Young Wife gives him a warning look.
There’s a spray of flowers from Brookfield/Remington, one of his companies, and one from somebody named Milton Kaplan. The name is vaguely familiar.
After the generic minister gives his final New Age, non-denominational blessing, Betsy and I each throw a handful of dirt on the plain wooden box and watch as the cemetery workers lower it the rest of the way into the ground. We hug and cry. When I look up, the others are already milling around. They walk past us, directing their murmured condolences somewhere between me and Betsy.
Addison says, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Could you just let everybody know? The poker group.”
He frowns. “I will if I can find them. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten together.”
I look at him. “You guys haven’t been playing on Monday nights?”
“Not lately. It’s probably six months or so since…” His voice trails off.
“It’s okay,” I say quickly. “Just if you happen to talk to anybody.”
We’re still looking at each other when New Young Wife tugs at his hand and they turn and walk towards their car.
Betsy takes me to Graze and we sit by the windows, nibbling on artisan cheeses and chickpea fries, watching the parade of people on Central Avenue.
“Are you surprised no one else came?” she asks me.
“Actually I’m surprised it wasn’t just you and me. Did you call Addison?”
She flushes slightly. “I thought he’d want to know. They were pretty tight in school.”
I twirl my wine glass on the cocktail napkin. “I thought about calling some of the people we used to hang out with, but we haven’t seen any of them in over a year. I never met any of his business partners. And Michael just didn’t have any real friends. That I know of.” A little nubbin of a thought sticks in my mind. About the poker group. I start to say something about it, but Betsy gives my hand a quick squeeze.
“He was lucky to have you.”
I look at her. “What did I do for him that was so wonderful?”
“You loved him,” she says.
Water brims in my eyes. “Did I?”
She looks disconcerted. “Didn’t you?”
I spread some goat cheese on a piece of bread. “Something was wrong. I know it. But he kept saying things were great. I don’t know…You couldn’t tell?”
She chews a garbanzo carefully. “It’s hard to tell what goes on inside somebody else’s relationship. Shit, sometimes it hard enough to tell what’s going on in your own. Whenever I was around you guys, he seemed happy—”
“How did I seem?”
“Well, girlfriend, you’ve never exactly been Little Mary Sunshine.”
“Here, drink some more of this.” She edges my glass towards me and rests her elbows on the table. “You’ve got this melancholy streak as wide as the Rio Grande. I always figured it had something to do with growing up on the mesa.”
“But you never asked me.”
“I don’t poke around in my friends’ past lives. If you wanted me to know, you would’ve told me.”
I stare at her, astounded at how nonchalantly she’s zeroed in on the central fact of my life and never questioned me about it.”
“Anyway, I still think he was lucky to have you. You guys had a couple of great years together. Which is more than a lot of people ever get.” She picks up her glass and her eyes fill again. “To Michael. God bless him.”