CM Magazine Review: Stay
Reviewed by: Dave Jenkinson
Saskatoon’s Millicent “Millie” Helen Patterson, 11, “going on twelve next month”, is a fraternal twin, nine minutes older than her brother Billie who was stillborn. In this excellent free verse novel, readers experience the breakup of Millie’s parents’ marriage through Millie’s eyes and via the “conversations” she has with her deceased brother. Millie visits Billy’s grave where she shares with him the content of her parents’ latest arguments, including the fact that Mum wants a divorce and Dad is now sleeping in the basement. Millie is also a reader, a secret reader that is of the sent and received texts on her mother’s phone, texts which reveal that there is already another man in her mother’s life. Shortly thereafter, Dad packs and moves to an apartment where Millie and her older sister Tara are to spend every other weekend.
Prior to Dad’s departure, Millie and best friend Jane, while trick-or-treating on Halloween, had rescued an abandoned, starving dog which was taken to an animal shelter where it was adopted. This encounter rekindled Millie’s desire for a dog, but when she broaches the idea with her parents, promising to carry out all the tasks related to the animal’s care, both respond negatively, with her mother saying, “The timing is bad...For this family.” The timing is no better after Dad moves out as his apartment building doesn’t allow pets and Mum’s return to full-time work as a teacher leaves her with little energy to care for a dog on the weekends her daughters are with their father (and Mum’s new man wants to spend time with her). However, a chance street encounter brings Millie into contact again with the rescued dog and the person who had adopted it. Apparently, the dog had been pregnant and had recently given birth to eight pups, a fact which renews Millie’s pleadings with her parents who ultimately agree to her taking one of the pups.
However, Rhuby, as Millie names the pup, is not the catalyst to reunite the family that Millie hoped it would be. In fact, the dog creates additional problems because Millie doesn’t take care of it as she said she would and her mother is fully responsible for Rhuby during the periods Millie and her sister are with their father. When Millie’s father is suddenly diagnosed with prostate cancer and has surgery, he is not allowed to engage in any strenuous activity for six weeks, and so his estranged wife suggests that he move in with her and his daughters while he recuperates. This period provides a cooling-off opportunity for the estranged parents, and the Stay ends on an optimistic note, with Dad, cured of his cancer, taking an apartment within walking distance, and the four of them engaging in shared activities, including going camping together during the holidays. However, Millie’s parents tell her and Tara that “the holiday doesn’t mean they’re getting back together.” And the other man in Millie’s mother’s life? Well, at some point, he just disappears from the story, and, because Millie is telling the story, the “why” of his absence is of no concern to her.
While a child can teach a dog to “Stay”, a child cannot cause parents to stay together. This free-verse novel is a powerful portrayal of a nuclear family that is coming apart. Though the book’s focus is on Millie, her interactions with her older sister reveal that Tara is also experiencing her own challenges in responding to the family breakup. Stay would be well-paired with Shari Green’s Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, another free verse novel about a similarly-aged girl whose family is also disintegrating.