Ho Springs is the American story of people trying to escape their destiny, but finding no matter how far they run, they always end up back home.
It’s the story of a place as much as of the people who live there. Hot Springs, Arkansas is one of those small American cities that anyone with any brains and gumption has to leave, the way our heroine Cora McAdams did. But even if you manage to get out, you find you’ve taken Hot Springs with you, in your values, your attitude, your soul. And you may find the only way to be yourself is to return to the place you truly belong.
That’s what happened to Cora, the smartest girl in Hot Springs, who ran as fast and as far as she could, marrying a romantic Parisian, having a child and settling down in France. But nearly 20 years later, her husband’s betrayal and her mother’s death, her alcoholic father’s illness and her feckless brother’s loss of the family business bring her back to town, assertively French teenage daughter in tow.
She’s a woman under pressure, torn among contradictory influences, just like her hometown itself. Hot Springs is a gorgeous historic spa town, with century-old bath houses built atop the natural hot springs that bubble up from the Arkansas hills. And it’s a mid-century gambling resort, centered on the race track where Bill Clinton’s mom played the ponies to send her son to Yale Law. And it’s a modern small Southern city, with evangelical churches and meth labs, strip clubs and New Age healers, all-you-can-eat catfish and get-rich-quick schemes.
It’s also, like many small American cities these days, a place where black and white citizens coexist at all levels of society, unlike the more stratified cities, suburbs, and rural areas. A major element of Ho Springs is the new alliances and tensions between black and white characters, as well as the realignment of class boundaries.
The town of Hot Springs is as much a player in the drama as any of the characters. It’s a study in contrasts, one butting up against the other. Hot Springs National Park encompasses a lush green mountain that looms over the town’s main street, or Grand Promenade. Peeling Victorian buildings stand beside 1950s motels with signs that say God Bless America. There’s a pancake shop and an aquarium, a series of majestic old bath houses followed by T & A Tattoos and the Exquisite A Go Go.
Smack in the middle of all this sits McAdams’ Apothecary & Luncheonette, in an old three-story building across from the Barstow Bath House. The façade of McAdams’ has been well-preserved: It still has its original period details and charm. But the paint is peeling, the gold-leaf sign is missing a couple of letters, and a metal security gate is closed and locked across the plate glass windows and front door.
This isn’t what Cora was expecting – she thought her brother Jamie was keeping the business open and functioning, if not thriving – and she is further shocked to find her father sprawled on the floor unconscious within the debris-filled apartment upstairs from the store. This is the two-story apartment where Cora grew up, filled with family antiques that once occupied the McAdams’ grand mansion. Cora’s mother managed to create a beautiful home even in these somewhat-reduced circumstances, but since her brother and father have been on their own, things have slid downhill fast. Cora has not been home since her mother’s funeral, so she is shocked to find this mess.
Over time, we see Cora cleaning up not only the apartment but the store itself, ala the heroine of the movie Chocolat. In Paris, Cora was a designer, and now she brings her chic sensibility to her family’s shop, keeping the basic beautiful structure but replacing the fried egg sandwiches and fountain cokes with cappuccino and croissants, selling chic little things alongside aspirin and toothpaste. She creates what’s definitely the coolest and most sophisticated shop in Hot Springs, but will it survive? That remains to be seen.
The Barstow Bath House, directly across the street from McAdams’, is a huge imposing structure, the oldest functioning bath house in Hot Springs. With three-story-high stone columns and deep striped awnings, the Barstow is a temple of a century-old spa. Inside are the original deep porcelain tubs, elaborate nickel pipes and showers, and individual steam boxes ala I Love Lucy. This is where LaTonya labors, studying her medical books in her off hours.
Just beyond the three or four blocks frequented by tourists lies the Exquisite A Go Go, headquarters of the seedy side of Hot Springs. It’s the Bada Bing Arkansas Style, with nude dancers and tough guys but also hillbillies instead of yos, meth addicts instead of junkies, and a more racially diverse management and clientele. The Exquisite is where several of the characters – DaShawn, Jamie, and Taryn – can often be found.
Divine Light Evangelical Church stands near the Exquisite, and past that, on the outskirts of town, is the old Springs Racetrack, one of the most beautiful horse tracks in the country. George spends a lot of time here working, and Jamie gambling away even more money.
At the farthest edges of town are the huge lake, where George lives with his little daughter Beth on a houseboat, and the deep hills and woods of Arkansas, where the meth labs and crank houses hide.