From the ashes of adversity: Tara MacLean’s Song of the Sparrow mines
raw pain to find beauty

When PEI-born songwriter Tara MacLean, who now splits her time between there and Salt Spring Island, was approached to write a book about her life, it might have been tempting to armour up. After all, MacLean’s story is punctuated by growing up in extreme poverty including bare kitchen cupboards, yearning for an absent father, living with a mother who struggled with alcoholism, being sexually abused by family and family acquaintances alike, suddenly losing a cherished sibling, the demise of two marriages, and living with the perverse sexism that dominated the music industry for decades. There were also extreme body image issues which included surgery and bulimia, and finding family 5000 kilometres from where her birth family lived.

But in order to write Song of the Sparrow, which was released in March and debuted at #6 on the Toronto Star’s Best Selling Books in Canada List, MacLean eschewed her armour. “I’d say I did the opposite of steel myself; I just took off all my armour. I said if I’m going to tell this story and it’s a story that could maybe resonate with other people, I’m going to have to be really raw about it,” MacLean says from her Salt Spring Island home. 

Her meditation practice, therapist, and supportive family — notably her mother who is in recovery — anchored her, especially considering her 17-year-long second marriage had just crashed. “You know when you go through a divorce, you’re kind of flung out into the world.”

And raw it is, with passages so disturbing the reader will wish they could reach their hands into the pages and cradle the children involved. Even the process of writing itself became a kind of guardian to MacLean. “You have to kind of just say ‘OK, like, I’m on my own in this and I have to I have to dive really deep’ so in order to take care of myself when those moments would come when I was really, really raw and really exposed I would just write. It’s almost like the page became what wrapped me up and kept me safe. Swaddled me, you know, the words, the sentences just kind of wrapped around me and I let, for lack of a better word, the truth of my story be the thing that kept me safe.”

And for all the darkness, in there is an invincible light. Not only is the story the stuff that keeps readers up past midnight to devour just one more chapter, but the turns of phrase and matters of choice regarding foreshadowing, imagery, and that which is revealed belie the fact this is MacLean’s first book. “That was brand new discovery. I had a feeling that I wanted to write a book someday; it was always on my bucket list. 

“This came about because of an essay I wrote about women and the music industry and body image and I’d just posted it on Facebook and a literary agent saw it, Carolyn Forde, and she said, ‘You know, I think you should probably consider writing a book.’ ”

While the process took two years following the dissolution of her marriage, it was familiar to the writer. “It just felt like the right time to dive into something deep and excavate my old stories and try and figure out why I am the way I am.” Working with her editor Jennifer Lambert offered the serendipity that had been scarce in her youth. “She was amazing and so tender with the very delicate content. She coaxed me into spreading my wings and taking up the space and allowing myself to just unfold word by word this kind of new way of expressing myself. It was really fun and it didn’t feel that much different than writing a song really.”

When she writes about early childhood in the 1970s, living in a cabin with no running water in the PEI woods, wandering the forest with her sister and being in touch with each ray of sunshine and drop of rain, the tale is enchanting, flooded with love, light, and, especially, the presence of music which was to become her life’s purpose. While chaos abounds, MacLean captures a child’s perspective with authenticity, including the feeling of being loved and safe, even though, as children always know where they are in the pecking order, she recognizes that other families have things she doesn’t, like secure housing, ample food, and routines. There is a child’s complete acceptance of how her parents chose to live. That grace, and the ability to write sympathetically even about the story’s predators, captures the reader.

“I think (my parents) chose it. They really didn’t want to be part of society and that conservative way of life that was happening. They were such hippies, you know, living off grid and seeing if life would provide and living on that edge.

“We never had extra tucked away in case of emergencies; it was all faith. And when you have kids, like, I wouldn’t do that, but there was a real beauty. It was also the time, coming out of the ’60s and early ’70s, when you had free love. I think that they knew they were in the chaos but they wanted to be in the chaos. I think they were breaking into the chaos on purpose and I’m really grateful they did.

She continues. “My mom came from that military background, you know, her father being a sergeant major, and everything was set. She had to practice the piano for 45 minutes, from this time to this time, and (make) hospital corners on the bed. Everything was so specific and regimented, so I think of her, meeting my dad and the freedom of just being able to live in a little cabin and have the earth be the ground you walk on. I think that was a really healthy choice for her at the time, to break out of the confines of the army brat life she grew up in.”

Partway through the book, MacLean experiences a kind of through-the-looking-glass moment when she bolts from her family to join newfound family she’s never met in Victoria. As teachers, their homes are orderly and stable, the cupboards are stocked with ample food, her school life is stable, and she is even enrolled in dance lessons. No predators lurk among the rooms. It is a time of beautiful reprieve from the chaotic ups and downs of her journey to date, one that the author notes was important to her journey. “The match of the wildness and the music and the chaos in my early life and then landing in this solid place allowed me to still be creative and wild and also functional.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the cornucopia of juxtaposition. While the family is clutched by poverty, a 10-year-old MacLean ends up with her father living on a boat in the Caribbean, feeding flour paste to exotic fish and thriving in the sun. As a young teen, she travels to the United Kingdom and France, later working with her mother in London for a spell, a European adventure you’d not expect for a family who could barely find food some months. And then, after MacLean is signed to a record label, there are gorgeous clothes, hair and makeup, expensive video shoots, world travel, and time spent in the company of Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams, and other music royalty.

“One time I wrote a poem and I can’t remember it exactly, but it was basically, you know, I’ve stood in line at you know the food bank and I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world. I’ve had to jump start my car and I’ve ridden in limousines. I’ve had the gamut. I’ve had photo shoots with some of the finest photographers in the world and I’ve had my mug shot taken because I stole something from a shop when I was a kid – I don’t think that’s in the book.

“I feel really lucky to have lived this incredible life where I’ve had nothing, I’ve had everything, and it’s made me really realize what actually matters, because when I was a child, I had the richness of music and love. And when I had everything being handed to me, I had music and I had love. And so long as I have music and I have love, nothing else matters. That’s everything.”

Music, indeed, deepens the complexity of the story as MacLean ties songs she wrote to life events that were happening. An accompanying album, Sparrow, collects these songs as a soundtrack to the book.

While MacLean can cross writing a book off her bucket list, she has one further wish for it. “One of my dreams for this book is that it will be used in classroom settings, that it will be used in sexual assault centres. We’re already sending books out to the sexual assault centres across Canada to get into the hands of the counsellors so they can determine whether this book would be helpful for certain survivors. In terms of maybe helping them bridge to that next part of recognizing they can thrive because of what happened, not in spite of what happened. Yes, all these things can happen to you, and you can still have an incredible, amazing, beautiful, healthy, productive, successful life.”

Wordfest presents Tara MacLean April 5 at the Memorial Park Library, with a special musical performance and conversation hosted by Wordfests CEO and Creative Ringleader Shelley Youngblut. It will be followed by an audience Q&A and book signing.