American literature has always had a heavy, complicated relationship with nature. For as long as there has been an American literature, nature has been portrayed as either a resource to be conquered and exploited or as the source of all purity, to be protected at all costs. From Whitman to Fennimore Cooper, from Twain to Hawthorne, from Mary Austin to Rachel Carson, we've veered back and forth on representations of the wilderness. Is it something to be feared and tamed, or something to be venerated and idealized?
Stay and Fight, a new novel by Madeline ffitch, adds to that most American of themes by deepening the relationship between humans and nature. It's the story of a young woman named Helen who moves from her native Seattle to Appalachia, where she has a son named Perley and decides to raise him in a back-to-the-land homestead with a lesbian couple.
Over the phone, ffitch, who is from Seattle and grew up all over the Northwest, admits that during the writing of Stay and Fight, "I was actually doing a lot of the things that some of the characters are doing, like trying to build from scratch on a piece of raw land and Appalachia."
While she was seduced by blogs with cozy photos of hand-built cabins, ffitch says, the reality turned out to be more complex. "I'm trying to dig out the freshwater spring and plumb it and teach myself how to do plumbing and carpentry and it's just going horribly the whole time."
"I'm working on building these structures with men," ffitch continues, "and then I feel constantly sidelined as a woman trying to build. But then I try to insist on doing things myself and to be honest, I actually don't know how to do things by myself."
In the novel, Helen and her compatriots are losing their battle with nature, too. The house they built is uneven and not adequately protected from the elements. Snakes and bugs share their home, and there's a dampness that never quite leaves the structure. Perley is raised more indoors than out. He's taught not to expect play as a routine. Instead, he's put to work from an early age. The three women believe that society has failed, and they see in Perley a chance to build a stronger, less soft human race.
The relationship between the women in Stay and Fight and the nature around them feels different than most American literature. When ffitch was building her house, she says, "the people that I was learning from had been in the region longer and had a deeper connection with the land. They were just completely unsentimental about nature. I think that comes through in the book."
There's nothing Romantic about the bond, ffitch says. "It's sort of like the bond you have with family, this sort of reluctant inter-reliance."
While writing about this antagonistic family relationship between socialized humans and unsocialized nature, ffitch admits she found it "impossible to not think about questions of colonization and of who gets to be on land and why. That led me to some particular places in the novel too, I think."
I've written before about the character who I believe makes The Scarlet Letter such a classic of American literature: Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl. Born out of wedlock, Pearl has a wildness to her that unsettles and attracts the townspeople in the novel. She is not at all a Christian child; instead, she seems to worship something darker, something a little more untamed.
Though ffitch says she hasn't read The Scarlet Letter since high school and she doesn't remember much about the book, Perley could easily be Pearl's little brother. Everything Perley knows about the world he learned from his three mothers, or directly from nature, or from Helen's old Elfquest comics.
That last element, the long-running fantasy comic series by Richard and Wendy Pini, is drawn directly from ffitch's childhood too. "I remember spedding middle school staring out the window, being like, 'Wolfriders, come take me away!'" She wrote Elfquest into Stay and Fight, ffitch says, "almost as this talismanic thing to help me through the process of writing it. And I gave it to my most vulnerable character, Perley, as something to help him."
The novel spins back and forth between first-person narration from four perspectives, and the chapters written by Perley are stunning in their rawness. They feel true, like they were guest-written by a real seven-year-old boy. Those chapters, ffitch says, helped keep the book alive for her.
"My background is in open-ended experimental fiction. My short stories are definitely pretty disobedient to form in a lot of ways," ffitch explains. "And so I'm trying to write this novel, my first novel, and in some ways these adult characters feel pretty constrained."
"It's almost like the voice of Perley came out of needing a release valve from writing those adult voices. There's something about the way that he apprehends the world and reflects it back that feels kind of closer to my heart as a writer. That style of writing is closer to my core of how I like to write." When I tell ffitch that I loved the way Perley's voice resonated with me, she says that "possibly what you're experiencing is the joy that I was experiencing and the freedom I felt writing that in that way."
It's fitting that Perley represents such freedom, because Stay and Fight is a book that examines freedom from all sides. What happens when you're hopelessly trapped in your own circumstances? And what does it feel like when you turn your prison into a pair of wings? And then what happens when everything you love is taken away from you? And what if your love is taken away from you for your own good?
Stay and Fight doesn't take sides along clear moral lines. It scrambles those basic American polarities of nature — the unspoiled goodness and the seductive resources — into a relationship that feels new. We're a part of nature, of course, but we are also deeply uncomfortable in it. Even for those of us who were born wild and stayed that way for most of our childhoods, there's some deep unrelenting humanity that can't be eaten whole by the beasts in our hearts. We don't belong in either world; our clothes chafe us, but our nudity leaves us vulnerable. So we do what we always do in an uncomfortable situation: we fight, and we fight, and we fight, until we can't fight anymore.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant