Cuyahoga River

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Things Never Leave Us, and Sarah Willis Knows It

Sarah Willis’s book Some Things That Stay ( is a beautifully-written book. In her meandering way, Willis received a BFA in Theater from Case Western Resere University, a Certificate in Photography from the Cooper School of Art, and took graduate classes in creative writing at Cleveland State University. Her stories have been published in many magazines (and one was nominated for the Pushcart Prize), and she has taught creative writing classes and spoken in a number of venues.

Some Things That Stay, published in 2000, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Stephen Crane Award as well as the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature and was made into a movie. She also has written The Rehearsal (2001), A Good Distance (2004), and The Sound of Us (2005). She is writing her fifth novel.

Some Things That Stay is a coming-of-age novel set in 1954. The protagonist is 15-year-old Tamara Anderson, whose father is a landscape painter and takes the family to a different location each year so he can paint new places. The family of five—Dad, Mom, Tamara, Robert, and Megan—can only take what will fit in their rounded-top trailer. The children are brought up in an environment where nakedness is acceptable, sex is explained at an early age, and religion is shunned with passion.

Willis conjures up life on a 1950s farm so we feel we are there, like when she writes “the cow feels like the dog, sort of bristly yet soft. She’s warm to the touch, and her skin moves against her body as if it’s not connected to the muscles in the same way ours is. She smells like nothing I ever smelled before, which is what I presume is the smell of cow, which is hard to separate from the smell of manure, which is everywhere.” The writing is in-the-moment and precise.

She chooses to tell the story entirely from Tamara’s point of view in the present moment, but I don’t find it awkward—it’s personal and intimate and is what draws me into the book and causes me to like and understand Tamara. I can see why she pretends she recently lived in Austria, it seems like something Tamara would do.

Critics would call it a quiet book, because not much happens in this book that takes place over a late spring and summer, except that Tamara has her first sexual experiences, Dad loses it when he fears his wife will die, Dad leaves them with neighbors to go to New York for a gallery opening, the kids start going to church, Mom tries to recover from tuberculosis, and we don’t know the outcome of that as the family makes yet another move at the end of the book to be near the sanitarium where she’s being treated. The book is about inner growth.

Willis’ descriptions of the Stuart’s art and his process are pretty exact and believable, and those parts are somewhat autobiographical, but Willis claims the autobiographical elements in the book are the family’s going to Chautauqua every summer (like the fireflies in jelly jars, who doesn’t have a memory like that from a time when fireflies seemed to be more prevalent). Her mother is nothing like Liz but her father may be a bit like Stuart, and I think Tamara may be a lot like Sarah..  In an interview in IndieBound, Willis says she doesn’t write about herself, but places, like the hill in Chautauqua, are part of the stories. She said, “I want to write characters who are not me, but who are, really, partly me. I want diversity, and I want a feeling that we are all the same in the same basic way. Sometimes this is hard to believe.”

In this book, do you believe it?

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