Ig Publishing ($17.95)
by Eleanor J. Bader
“The Cole sisters were poor girls from the countryside, the kind who up until second or third grade had said fanger for finger,” Steve Yarbrough writes in his sweeping and emotionally resonant eighth novel, Stay Gone Days. Ella, the older sibling, is the story’s good girl: good grades, good manners, and a go-along-to-get-along personality. Caroline is the opposite: feisty and rebellious, she prefers the self-directed learning available in the public library to the classroom.
People in Ella and Caroline’s hometown of Loring, Mississippi, took notice of the pair, and Yarbrough’s evocation of the gender, class, and race dynamics of their all-white enclave crackles. Yarbrough’s portrayal of friendships between girls and sexually pushy boys presents the sordid reality of the 1970s, before terms like acquaintance rape and sexual misconduct entered mainstream parlance, and before feminist activists pushed for consequences against the men who perpetrate these acts.
Ella, a talented singer, flees Loring when she gets a scholarship to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. She never finishes her degree, however, feeling that her skill and drive are insufficient to make the cut and succeed. Instead, she spends several years waitressing until a chance meeting with Martin, another Berklee dropout, turns into a love affair and then marriage and life as a stay-at-home mother of two. Economic security follows as the fledgling record label that Martin co-owns takes off and thrives.
Caroline, on the other hand, remains in Loring after Ella leaves, and she opts for what she calls Stay Gone Days, skipping classes and doing whatever she can to find adventure. Like Ella, Caroline eventually leaves Mississippi, but once gone, she maintains only sporadic contact with her sister and their newly remarried mom, a trickle of communication that quickly sputters out. Her life is something of a blur as she moves from state to state, taking low level jobs and entering and exiting relationships that, for the most part, mean nothing to her. For a while, this lifestyle satisfies her.
Although Yarbrough writes without overt judgment, the unfolding story is a showcase for the ways bad luck can intersect with bad choices. In this case, when Caroline is in her mid-twenties, she finds herself scrambling for safety after hooking up with a wannabe actor turned violent grifter. After she heads to Europe to evade criminal prosecution for her unwitting role in a theft that left a store clerk dead, Caroline’s terror and desperation are palpable. But this wily heroine is a survivor. Using a forged college transcript, she finds work as an off-the-books English teacher, moving from Brno to Bratislava to Budapest to Prague before finding a higher-paying and more permanent position in Warsaw. Stability follows. So does fame as she begins writing in her spare time and is soon highly lauded for her skill with words.
Years go by, and while the sisters frequently think of one another, there is absolutely no contact between them. Yarbrough is masterful at creating a milieu that allows their estrangement to fester and flourish. Indeed, his ability to describe emotional complexity is astonishing and extends beyond the sisters’ relationship. For example, the minute annoyances that bubble up in most long-term romantic relationships are presented so matter-of-factly that they are simultaneously heartbreaking, riveting, and wholly recognizable. Silences replace easy banter, despite the fact that Martin loved Ella “more than anybody or anything. Why had it become so hard to show it? He’d die for her if need be. He sometimes felt as if he already had.”
In addition, Stay Gone Days covers territory that goes beyond sibling and marital conflict. By zeroing in on the necessity to forgive oneself for trespasses large and small, it posits a cogent moral reckoning. What’s more, a vast number of human foibles and failings, such as regret, atonement, and reconciliation, are rendered in prose that is breathtakingly beautiful and tremendously moving. Ella and Caroline have a brief reunion that temporarily returns them to Loring, but it becomes clear that the many omissions—the many missed moments of joy and sorrow in each of their lives—cannot be recovered, giving the novel lasting gravitas.
Wise, tender, and honest, Stay Gone Days forces readers to confront the inevitability of aging and the choices we make to maintain or sever family ties. It also forces us to consider the long-term residue that remains long after we leave our childhood homes. Stay Gone Days brings Ella and Caroline home again, but it is a home that neither of them recognizes. Whether they can construct something new in its stead remains an open question.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022