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.