STAY AND FIGHT
By Madeline ffitch
In the Christian roots of the American imagination there has long existed a powerful metaphor of the wild, whose dark, untouched paths lead to salvation. Epiphany is the product of solitude and disorientation. “None know how often the hand of God is seen in a wilderness,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “but them that rove it for a man’s life.”
Even better than being alone in a glen with God, perhaps, is being alone in one without him. In “Stay and Fight,” Madeline ffitch’s debut novel, Helen, an urbane hipster know-it-all from Seattle, follows a boyfriend to Appalachian Ohio. Fleeing a metropolitan ennui identifiable to any millennial, she uses a hefty inheritance from a rich relative to buy 20 acres of raw hillside, settling into the city slicker’s fantasy of getting away from it all. When her tree-feller boyfriend nearly kills his boss in an accident and flees in shame, Helen realizes her resulting isolation is what she wanted all along. “No one was watching me all day but God,” she says, “and I didn’t believe in God.”
It’s a neat inversion, the atheist pioneerwoman as protagonist, and with “Stay and Fight,” ffitch aims to update the frontier narrative from a queer feminist perspective, spinning a tale of exodus from a cruel new America where pipelines and pollution pox the countryside and the Appalachian Mountains are “honeycombed and hurt beneath the surface.”
Motivated in part by guilt as a privileged outsider, Helen invites a local lesbian couple, Lily and Karen, and their newborn son, Perley, to join her on the land. For years they share an insular, antisocial utopia, united by their anticapitalist eagerness to eke out an existence eating boiled nettles and acorns. Forget other people, Lily decides after the three of them construct a ramshackle cabin, which is promptly infested by black snakes: “It was each other we wanted.”
Karen and Lily call their parenting style “dignity of risk,” and when 7-year-old Perley is bitten by one of the snakes, the family is cast out of paradise and into disarray. Seeing his face wound, the school principal reports the family to Children’s Services, whose agents remand the boy to foster care. To get him back, Karen joins an oil-pipeline crew to earn enough cash for court-ordered property improvements. There she discovers the pipeline is headed right for Helen’s land, where construction could eventually devastate their land and force them all to flee.
In a 2017 essay for Granta, ffitch recounted her own family’s experience attending protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, ominously nicknamed the “black snake.” She’s borrowed that image to serve as the central metaphor of her novel, the snake that bites Perley mirroring the danger of the pipeline that slithers toward Helen’s land.
At the novel’s climax, the snakes both metaphorical and literal seem poised to destroy this backwoods Eden. An exasperated Karen has quit her crew in defeat; Perley remains in foster care, “hopped up on some kind of meds.” When Karen firebombs a compressor station that services the pipeline, the act seems less heroic than desperate. “Too bad that kind of thing doesn’t create lasting change,” Helen remarks upon reading of the eco-sabotage in the newspaper.
“On the other hand,” Karen replies, “what does?”
In that Granta essay, ffitch described the tension between activism and fiction. “Rather than claiming certainty or authority where none exists, storytellers stay honest by writing about what we ourselves don’t fully understand.” “Stay and Fight” succeeds in mapping the obscure psychological and emotional territory that defines a life caught between commitment and ambivalence, between rebellion and resignation.
The wilderness her characters settle ultimately provides them with neither epiphany nor exodus. In the forest, they learn not how to live without society, but how to survive as a family. The men in the novel are broken, always hiding or walking out or committing suicide, taking “long hiatuses of evil lowdown opting-out.” But the women persist. “That’s what family is,” Karen says. “The people who stick around to fight with you.”
With “Stay and Fight,” ffitch hasn’t refuted the frontier novel so much as added a new chapter to an old saga. Just like the American pioneers the author might like to disown, her characters achieve independence, but fall far short of utopia. Their experiment remains incomplete, ongoing — the road ahead wide open but fraught with danger and uncertainty.
Wes Enzinna is a senior editor at Harper’s. His writing has appeared in The Times Magazine, Harper’s, n+1, Mother Jones and The London Review of Books.
STAY AND FIGHT
By Madeline ffitch
292 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
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