"Stay and Fight,” the debut novel by local author Madeline ffitch, has won high critical hosannas from a long list of outlets including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. And rightly so. It’s a remarkable book – so knowing and generous, so gracefully written, you want to stand on a table and testify.
Many Athens NEWS readers may remember ffitch as the woman who in 2012, to protest an injection-well project on Ladd Ridge Road in Alexander Township, handcuffed herself to two concrete-filled barrels at the site. Perhaps moved by a similar spirit, the people in her novel try to unplug from the overheating dynamo called industrial capitalism, and build a self-sufficient human space out of hard work and a plot of earth.
The effort may fail; the book leaves the question open. But it exalts, with strength and tenderness, the dignity of putting up the fight.
The story opens on Helen: thirty-ish, B.A. in liberal studies, vaguely dissident in outlook. She has, she says, been “waiting for (her) life a long time,” with nothing resembling career plans or deep connections, getting by on seasonal work around Seattle.
When her new boyfriend, with notions of going “off the grid,” heads to Appalachia where land is cheap, Helen drifts along. Using a small inheritance, she buys 20 acres of Ohio hillside and a tiny camper, and the couple sets up to livelike pioneers.
Boyfriend soon ditches and bolts. Helen’s planning to leave as well, but instead persuades a pair of independent, fringe-dwelling local women to join her on the slope and build a house. Karen and Lily are a couple, and Lily’s just given birth to their son, Perley. Helen, hungry for human companionship, seems to think the four of them can, by wanting it hard enough, become a family – which Karen defines as “the people who stick around to fight with you.”
With skill that’s a joy to behold, ffitch drops the reader into this crew’s daily struggle to build their world from scratch, while scrapping chronically with one another. Helen, ever ready to expound her opinions, reads up on wild foods and compiles a binder of “best practices” for homesteading. Karen, a hard-bitten nurse who’s grimly awaiting some undefined future badness, sneers at the college girl: “What is this, some kind of corporate retreat?” When Lily, a gentle soul who loves Perley so much it scares her, says she wants their boy to have fun, Karen says survival training’s more important: “This isn’t a game,” she warns. “We’ve got important things to prepare for.”
There is zero romance here about the bucolic joys of subsistence living – we get the stink, the dirt, the cold, the animal guts, the hunger fed on grubs and acorns, the snakes in the cupboard, the muck in the toilet pail. We also get very funny moments. When Lily complains to Rudy, their backwoods anarchist neighbor, about a black rat snake infestation, he tells her, “Good f---ing luck. I know a woman gave her house to the snakes and built another one.”
Four narrators – first Helen, then Lily and Karen, and later still Perley – take turns telling the story. The shifting perspective works like magic to display an intricate four-way relationship in the round; we’re shown each woman’s stances from the outside, her needs and fears from the inside. And when Perley starts chiming in, a vision already rich expands into an extraordinary fourth dimension.
Perley, at the story’s heart in more ways than one, joins in the telling at around 7 years old, speaking a savant-like dialect that must be heard to be believed. Fantastic and bluntly matter-of-fact, childlike and casually profane, flip and oddly formal, it’s salted with repurposed phrases picked up from adults. This complex kid – smart, confused, brave, scared, innocent, devious – sees his world through the colored glass of “Elfquest,” a fantasy comic Karen admires, peopled with magic elves and fiercely loyal wolves.
Drawn to the world beyond the homestead, and to other children, Perley persuades “his women” to let him attend school. Once there he’s pinioned between embarrassment for his family’s weirdness, and his determination to be “steadfast and resolute” in keeping the values of his “wolf pack.” His life reports are hilarious one moment, heartbreaking the next; sometimes both. “I am an elfin spy with optimum fighting skills,” he confides hopefully to a school bully who’s tormenting him. “Part wolf. Maybe you are too.”
In a series of events triggered in part by Perley’s outreach, the world his family wants to close out begins closing in. Under siege from the cash economy, the law and social services, their hard-won, fragile cohesion pulls apart. We watch each of them twist in isolation, working out what the family means to them; what they’re willing to fight for, and how; and where adapting to the system ends and selling out begins. As the book ends, we don’t know what awaits them, but they haven’t quit.
There are so many other wonderful things in this story: Real live people, bulls-eye humor, expertly strung plot lines, and phrasing as light and precise as the flicker of a rat snake’s tongue. Too much treasure to even suggest in a review, so just read the book. Please.
ffitch is on a book tour, which includes stops this Friday, Oct. 4,at the Athens Public Library (5 p.m.); and Saturday, Oct. 5, at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville (7 p.m.). The Athens Public Library event is billed as a workshop, “Writing Home, Writing Place,” for both first-time and continuing writers, readers and storytellers.