The idea of going “back to the land” tends to evoke picturesque images of a nurturing earth and a supposed return to an uncorrupted, self-sufficient lifestyle. These beliefs are swiftly shattered for the characters of Madeline ffitch’s outstanding first novel, Stay and Fight (Farrar, Starus and Giroux, 2019). Narrated through the alternating points of view of its four protagonists, the novel introduces us to Helen, who at 31, is tired of “waiting for my life the whole time.” She decides to leave Seattle with her boyfriend Shane and, thanks to an inheritance from Helen’s deceased uncle, they buy 20 acres of land in Appalachian Ohio.
Shane’s desire to live off the grid wanes as soon as the couple faces money problems. In desperation, he asks Helen if she can do “something” with her degree, to which she answers: “… the only thing you can do with a college degree is get another college degree.” This wry humor is one of ffitch’s authorial hallmarks and it often alleviates what would otherwise be the brutal hardships faced by her characters.
As Shane leaves, Helen invites a couple she recently met, Lily and Karen, to move in with her. Helen builds a ramshackle house with Karen while Lily mostly cares for her and Karen’s son, Perley. Domestic life reveals Helen to be a vociferous know-it-all obsessed with developing a “Best Practices” binder of how they should live in nature. Karen is a more introvert know-it-all with set ideas on how to live as detached from society as possible. The three women often clash yet manage to form an unorthodox household. As Karen explains, family is the “people who stick around to fight with you.”
This dynamic changes when the now seven-year-old Perley asks to go to school. His mothers acquiesce reluctantly and the decision signals the irruption of mainstream society into their lives. Perley hasn’t socialized with other people. His inability to operate a tablet in the classroom is misinterpreted as concentration problems. His fixation with heroism and honor – learned from reading Karen’s collection of the classic fantasy comic book Elfquest – baffles his teacher.
Often, attempts to shed the norms of society are their own brand of social engineering, and muddled atavistic notions of living in harmony with nature can be just as oppressive as the world one is escaping. This is seen in everything from Karen’s fixation on smoothing one of Perley’s unruly eyebrows to more obsessive attitudes. As Karen puts it: “From the moment I met my son (…) my mission became not to undo all he was born with. To watch him develop habits was painful to me. I resented each neural pathway as it was blazed in his brain.”
When Perley is bit by one of the black snakes that live in his house, a social worker recommends that he is moved to a foster home. His family scrambles to regain custody. The attitude of the social worker – who’s appalled by things like Perley playing in the forest unsupervised – is reminiscent of Helen’s own opinionated overreach. Unlike Helen, however, the social worker has the power to impose norms on Perley, exemplifying how the boy is not prepared to deal with the system but neither is the system prepared to respect those who live on its margins.
Ffitch is a member of the environmental collective Appalachia Resist! Her ecological concerns are palpable throughout the book. However, if anyone wants to label Stay and Fight as a “political” novel, it should be in the understanding that its politics are weaved into an artful literary work with four fully realized narrators that upends worn-out tropes about “back to the land” fiction – and perhaps our own misconceptions.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza