JULY 23, 2019
MADELINE FFITCH’S DEBUT NOVEL, Stay and Fight, is immersive and compelling, depicting the life of an Appalachian family that is equally unconventional and familiar. Appalachia is invisible to the broader American imagination while also being a caricature. It is, in many ways, at the forefront of a national conversation about the rural working class as a result of the tumultuous 2016 presidential election. And notably, much discussion about Appalachia has surrounded J. D. Vance’s divisive memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Despite this recent attention (or perhaps exacerbated by this very attention), Appalachia is still flattened and indiscernible to most of the country. Past and enduring representations of Appalachia usually involve the figure of the hillbilly, incest, and poverty. It is a region also at the center of national myths about industry and bootstrap pullin’ work ethic. What could be more “American” than the coal miner who works an honest day and goes home to his pastoral, peaceful plot of land?
There is nothing flat or caricatured about the characters in ffitch’s novel. If Stay and Fight is concerned with representing America at all, then it is a damning picture — a place that resembles nothing of the meritocratic land of bounty and opportunity that exists in the national imaginary. America is, instead, a place hostile to the poor and to the unconventional, unconcerned with things like honest industry or merit. But, the novel is more interested in representing the complex lives of people who just happen to live in Appalachia. The region is important, yes, but it is important in the way another character is important. Our protagonists grapple with the land how one might grapple in a fist fight, to the point where we’re not sure if the land is a character, or if the characters are just another aspect of the land. Take, for instance, when one of our protagonists, Helen, gets a job as a tree trimmer and attempts to take down a gargantuan white oak with her boss, Rudy. “[T]he weight of the tree had pulled its roots up out of the earth like a primordial creature waking up and opening its mouth,” and Helen watches in horror as the tree, animated and angry, nearly crashes down upon Rudy. She stands frozen with inaction, indistinguishable from the landscape surrounding her: “I was also a tree, rooted where I stood.”
The novel opens from Helen’s perspective: she is an outsider from Seattle who moves to Appalachian Ohio with her boyfriend, Shane. Helen uses all of her money to buy 20 acres in the area, at the behest of Shane, with plans to cultivate and live off the land, only to be dumped and abandoned by him after such lofty goals prove to be more difficult than either of them anticipated. The narrative seems to greet the reader on their level, entering the story through a perspective that feels familiar — Helen, a foreigner in the area, is in a moment of great transition and opportunity. Helen’s small-town neighbors Karen and Lily, two Appalachian locals, have their lives as a couple converge with hers after Lily gives birth to a son, Perley, forcing them to leave their cabin on the Women’s Land Trust.
Helen invites them to move onto her 20 acres and make a home, literally. Together, Helen and Karen haphazardly build a house as fast as they can before winter. They have an antagonistic relationship, one in which Helen tries her best to prove her skills despite having none, and Karen withholds her skills out of spite. The result is a leaning, creaking, poorly constructed home full of holes and crevices that invites nature in and keeps little of the elements out. Lily spends her time nursing and caring for Perley amid the combative atmosphere, and the three women maintain a delicate balance resembling a strange family.
Helen and Karen compete in a contest for survival in needlessly difficult conditions, and it is a contest that appears to have no real objective. Helen is obsessed with compiling a “Best Practices Binder” that contains instructions about how to survive in the wilderness. Helen and Karen challenge each other to grow, hunt, and gather food, only going to the grocery store if they roll doubles on dice, a game they call “Survival Dice.” They teach Perley this survival ethos as he gets older. ffitch creates arresting images of food throughout the narrative as the conflict of survival recurs. Early on, Lily struggles to nourish her own body so that she in turn can feed Perley, but she also finds peace in being alone and nursing her son away from the squabbles of her partner and her housemate. When Perley is only a few months old, she steals away to feed in solace:
I reached into my overalls and I took out the bottle of cooking oil that I’d smuggled from camp. I unscrewed the top and drank from it for ten full seconds before taking a breath. The golden oil coated my insides. It was meat and milk and cake and bread. Fat. I rocked Perley and drank deeply.
Lily is meek, allowing the big personalities of Helen and Karen to take over their shared space. She says of them, “I was beginning to see that I lived with two women who were against things. They were against things, and I was one of those things.” But, Lily is also a mother, and her motherhood is one of the few aspects of humanity that seems in tune with, rather than in opposition to, the natural world around them. Again and again, we encounter our characters in tension with the landscape, searching for food or grappling for space with the animals. It’s not just the human beings who are trying to survive, though; the land they live on is marred by an old pipeline that will soon be full of high-pressure gas shot down from up north.
The plot moves forward unceasingly: each event seems to have a consequence that breeds another event with a consequence, and so on. Helen and Karen’s poor craftsmanship in building the house results in a persistent snake problem. There are snakes behind the woodstove, snakes under the floorboards, and most importantly, snakes in the bed. “The snake considers our home to be its home,” says Perley, in his engaging first-person child’s voice. “My women,” as he refers to them, want to create an alternative and untainted lifestyle on their land for the child, which causes them to build their own ramshackle house, which lets the snakes in, which Perley befriends because he is lonely and not allowed to attend school, which makes him want to attend school. Future consequences seem clear to the reader. That foresight, rather than rendering the story dull, creates an ever-mounting tension.
Of course, Perley begins attending school and is woefully unprepared. What Perley wants is friendship, but the other children think he is a “faggot bastard” with two moms. After a snake bites his face while he’s asleep in bed, Perley uses his prominent scar as a means to become popular. In an unsurprising but still gut-wrenching turn of events, his teacher and principal contact child services. A social worker, a young, college-educated woman who we know immediately won’t understand their way of life, visits the house when Helen and Lily are doing chores in a scene so expertly written it makes the palms sweat. Lily wants nothing more than to protect Perley and act as inoffensive as she can. Helen, of course, does not know when to stop talking, making the social worker thumb through the Best Practices Binder, where she reads, “Dump the shit bucket when it’s two-thirds full,” and to which Perley replies in eager innocence and genuine excitement, “It’s my job to shovel the shit pile.” Helen, attempting to make it better, clarifies that “[i]t’s called humanure. We let it sit for two years before we put it on the garden.” This scene, and so many others like it in Stay and Fight, carefully mixes an absurd humor with crushing devastation, so that we’re left incredulous about the circumstances and how we’ve arrived there.
ffitch has a knack for subverting expectations through character development. Rudy, Helen’s tree-trimmer boss, ends up living on the land with them in a tent, sleeping next to his fruit tree nursery that he places right on top of the old and menacing pipeline on the property. Rudy is what one might imagine when Appalachia is mentioned: a gruff man who works a manual labor job, who, on the surface, has backward ideas and a toxic masculinity. But these assumptions are turned deftly upside down, and we’re left to question our own prejudices about people and place. Rudy hires Helen as ground crew when no one else will hire a woman. Rudy regularly makes savvy social observations. He takes Helen to task when she uses academic jargon without any real content, and he is one of the earliest to enact social protest. “You and your delicate sensibilities,” he says to Helen, who is hesitant to engage in illicit nighttime fruit tree planting with him, “Talk so much shit about questioning authority, private property is an oppressive construct, as long as you can safely observe us assholes from the sidelines. You fucking landowner.” Rudy is a born-and-raised Appalachian, a man who cuts trees for a living and didn’t go to college, and he is also a man who says “oppressive construct,” who spars with the women in this novel as equals. He is a delightful surprise who wriggles his way into this eccentric family.
And it is a moment with Rudy that reveals a central theme of this novel. “You’re poor, you’re fucked. Well, we’re not poor,” he says. Such a statement encapsulates so much about these characters’ struggles and where they live. It seems no matter how hard they work, how much they try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, how considerable the effort they put into living a decent life on their own terms, it doesn’t matter. Perley still gets taken away, Karen still has to sacrifice her principles, Lily still loses her son, and there’s not much that can be done because they are poor. And yet, a more important takeaway is that they are also far from poor. They refuse to be boiled down to the banal matter of wealth as so many from the region are. They have the land, they have each other, and they have the will to fight.