Swarthmore College

I’m always looking for how the liberally educated are represented in fiction, films, and so on.


In Madeline Ffitch’s 2019 novel Stay and Fight the first of the four viewpoint characters to be introduced is Helen, who has come to Appalachia with a boyfriend seeking some kind of direction for her life. When he leaves, she remains on the land she bought and eventually invites a lesbian couple to live with her in a ramshackle improvised cabin they build together. Helen is college-educated but in her own POV introduction makes little of it–at one point saying that a college education is only useful as a entry credential for additional education.

But in the other POV chapters for Karen and Lily, the couple who move in with Helen, and their son Perley, Helen’s education is arguably her most defining characteristic. Not only does she insist that she can, in a classic “liberal arts” way, learn how to do anything on her own, including building a house, but she creates a “best practices” binder that she insists be a reference guide for the entire household. There’s some quintessential moments of cultural self-righteousness that are tied back to her education, such as scolding a visitor for attempting to appropriate Native American culture.

That difference seems really important. It’s meaningful given that Ffitch’s own life at least has some resemblance to Helen’s (she has a Ph.D in creative writing from Ohio University and has lived as a homesteader in Appalachian Ohio, and has a family background of activism and protest against pipeline construction in North Dakota). I recognize the working-through that the novel offers. I feel like I see this a lot in our students, in our faculty and in our institutions–a simultaneous effacement of our education even while it also defines us and shapes our approach to almost everything in our lives, and is the first thing that others see in us.


About the Author

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

More Posts by Timothy Burke
Posts by Timothy Burke
June 1, 2020