Stay and Fight
Stay and Fight is a powerful novel that haunts yet has derivative features that may give the reader pause. But overall, it provides a thought-provoking experience.
Helen Conley arrived in Appalachian Ohio fully in love with her boyfriend’s ideas about living off of the grid. After all, if things don’t work out they can always go back to Seattle, so they buy some acres and move in together, into a trailer on the land. But then he declares that he’s done working for his mess of a boss at the coal and logging company and wants to make a fresh start of things. While promising to send for her when he has work, he promptly disappears instead, leaving Helen alone with no electricity or food, with winter approaching. land rich but cash poor.
With no one else to turn to, she approaches his ex-boss to ask for a job and becomes part of his logging team until fall ends. Through Rudy she finds out about the Women’s Land Trust, comprised solely (natch) of women and a land where no man is allowed to tread unless he’s got business with its citizens. She soon learns that one of her new friends there, Lily Marshall, has become pregnant thanks to one of those visiting men. When Lily gives birth to a boy, she must start afresh herself – male children are not allowed at the Women’s Land Trust beyond the age of five. When the winter passes she chooses to offer space on her twenty acres to Lily, Lily’s partner Karen, and Lily’s brand-new son, Perley. They’ll live and work together, splitting the burden and cost.
Karen and Lily are skeptical, but Helen vows to build a house for the four of them – and to have it ready by the following fall. This turns out to be a promise barely fulfilled, as she ignores all of Karen’s good advice and produces a house that’s habitable but flawed. In keeping with their vow to live without society’s help, the women subsist on what they can gather and hunt, with some small processed staples (Lily hordes chocolate chips and cooking oil like holy relics), but for years they and Perley are content together in their makeshift found family – Lily maternal and indulgent, Karen fiery and outspoken, and Helen organizing – and always butting heads with Karen. But all things must change as time passes; soon Perley is old enough to go to school, a pipeline company threatens to encroach on their land, and Helen goes into business with Rudy, deciding to plant an unzoned commercial apple orchard at the border of the property. But as the outside world intervenes, soon their fragile family plan may just crumble to dust.
First things first: the commercial pitch for Stay and Fight is somewhat wrong. Though Google may insist so, it isn’t a comedy, it’s a human drama laced with desperation and some black humor thrown in. There are some obvious John Irving and Hemingway nods in this story mainly made of outsider-filled found families and calamities. There’s a touch of ritual magic thrown in, which overall makes it feel like a more rural The World According to Garp than anything else. Matriarchal society raises single boy child? Check. Useless male figures who exist to impregnate the women and then bugger off for most of the time? Check (only the hilariously crusty Rudy stays throughout the majority of the novel). Add in a hefty dose of society sucking and a kid who feels like he escaped from Donahugh’s Room and you have the general formula. The novel portrays the pathology of delusion beautifully, but more importantly – hardscrabble and tough, smart and fresh – this book is unlike anything I’ve read all year. About real friendship and true love – and depravation, jealousy, denial and survival – it’s an oddball read that sucks a person straight in.
All three of the heroines are troubled, and they share a folie à trois about the life they tolerate for years. Their interactions show what happens when a group of people become so invested in maintaining their own world, so enmeshed at bottom-line living they forget that indoor plumbing, central heating, and a room without hornet and snake infestations are good ideas. The outside world is the enemy. The mess is compelling and fascinating. When Perley becomes so hungry for a real friend he files his own complaint with Social Services, you know you’ve got an insular situation happening.
Perley’s segments are the most captivating yet utterly contrived of the book. With his fixation on Karen’s ElfQuest books, he lives in an imaginative twenty-four-hour long Live Action Role Play. Part of this is unique, part of it feels like a Room rip-off. I leave it to the reader to figure out which part. Also Stay and Fight’s non-ending is pretty unforgivable, though it follows the general line of thought it has about there never ever being a real and permanent solution to any problem.
But the strong spell of Stay and Fight is almost otherworldly. You will keep it with you for days as you allow it to spill its dark curtain around your shoulders. It’s worth a read, and is memorable, despite its flaws.