Steve Yarbrough opens his latest novel, Stay Gone Days, with these words: “In Ella’s recollections, their house stands on the east side of the gravel road, a cotton field to the north, an orchard to the south. It’s a boxy little two-bedroom with Sheetrock siding, hot in spring and summer, cold in fall and winter. They had a window unit, but it mostly just made noise. They had a fireplace, too, but it stayed boarded up because one time they found a dead snake there.”
This beginning passage serves two purposes. First, it firmly plants us in the seemingly simple world of Ella and Caroline Cole. But even more importantly, it makes the all-consuming experience we are about to undergo as we travel with these two sisters throughout their vibrant and extraordinary lives seem — upon reflection of how and where those lives began — all the more exceptional.
As Yarbrough introduces us to the Cole sisters, we learn more about their status in the world — how they are “poor girls from the countryside,” with a mother who works at a local dollar store and a father who splits his time between being a propane delivery driver and an electronics repairman and how their family’s lack of money, especially while mingling among their wealthier peers at the private school they attend in the fictional town of Loring, Mississippi, affects the way they see themselves. Early on, Caroline, in a moment of frustration, asks her sister, “What have you got? What have I got? Who in the hell are we?” These are the questions that shape much of their childhood.
The sisters certainly have plenty of disagreements at home, but it’s an accident involving their father that fully sparks a rupture that will last for decades.
Ella sets off to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. She drops out, but music stays a part of her life as she meets Martin Summers of Yankee Southern Records and eventually settles into a relatively stable life.
Caroline has a much rockier young adulthood as she struggles to find comfort. One of her most difficult moments involves a tragic, horrific event with an ex-boyfriend. It’s not until she begins teaching English and traveling abroad that her life finds its meaning. Her experiences eventually lead her to write a collection of short stories and a novel that will, in many ways, push her to confront her past.
It is the exploration of the past that gives Stay Gone Days much of its thematic heart. Yarbrough, through his characters, explores how to escape the past — and whether we even can. He also considers its defining impact on our futures and the way we deal with lingering traumas. In a beautiful reflection upon Ella’s past, Yarbrough writes, “She did everything she could to ensure that her own marriage bore no resemblance to her parents’ and that her daughters’ childhoods bore little if any to hers and that of her poor lost sister.” Even near the end of the novel, when Caroline reminiscences on days at school with her teachers, the past continues to show just how much it influences our entire lives.
Stay Gone Days also, especially in its second half, explores the influence and importance of art, both to the creator and the consumer. When Caroline begins to write, “The prose gushed out as though it had been waiting to find its way onto the page for twenty years, or twenty-five, or even more.” The cathartic act comes across so strongly as Caroline creates, but we also see this kind of an emotional release when Ella begins reading Caroline’s words.
Yarbrough, whose previous novels include The Unmade World and The Realm of Last Chances, has created a rich and meticulously crafted story in Stay Gone Days. The prose is gentle, with a steady flow that is inviting and captivating. Some of the descriptions could overwhelm impatient readers, but there is so much beauty in the language that any occasional excesses can’t mar this truly excellent novel’s affecting and fulfilling end.
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