How important are the decisions we make almost thoughtlessly on a day-to-day basis? Sometimes they can have life-altering implications, and in this carefully crafted story about flawed characters, Catherine Ryan Hyde shows that sometimes, heroism isn’t made up of bold, brave actions but rather of listening and sharing small moments.
The story is about fourteen-year-old Lucas Painter. He explains, from some point in the future, that during the summer of 1969, his brother was in Viet Nam, and he was trying to help his best friend, Connor. Both Connor and Lucas have less-than-ideal family lives.
Connor’s parents don’t talk, and the silence in their home is deafening. Connor rarely leaves the house except to go to school because he is afraid of what might happen if he’s not at home. He can’t really explain why he feels that way, but it’s something that his friend Lucas accepts. Indeed, Lucas’ home life isn’t much better. Instead of silence, his parents are constantly yelling and screaming. Neither young man has loving, compassionate parents who care a bit about their children’s lives. But Lucas and Connor, friends since the age of three, have each other.
On the day that Lucas receives a letter from his brother in Viet Nam, in which most of what his brother wants to tell him has been redacted by military censors, he visits Connor. Connor has been sitting in his bedroom all day, not doing much of anything. He won’t leave the room or the house, so Lucas finally escapes from the depressing atmosphere in Connor’s home. He wanders into the woods behind the house — the woods his mother had told him never to go in because he’d get lost. And he does. But eventually, he comes across a house in the middle of the woods, and he sees two huge dogs. And even though he knows it’s the wrong thing to do, because he’s scared of the dogs, he runs. And the dogs run after him.
When Lucas trips and falls, he realizes that the dogs aren’t running to try to savage him, but rather are running with him. And when he turns around to take them back to their cabin in the woods, he realizes that he enjoys running. So Lucas begins running with the dogs until one day when they won’t leave the cabin. The dogs are unhappy and anxious, and Lucas realizes that Zoe, the person they live with, is in trouble. He saves her, and with that action, ends up changing the lives of those around him.
Dogs. Their love can save lives. And Lucas’ life has not had much love in it. “But it did strike me that they were the only . . . well, I started to say “people,” but they weren’t people. They were the only beings in my life who loved me and had no trouble saying so.” But those dogs had led him to Zoe, a woman with her own deep-rooted problems, and through Zoe, Lucas finds a way to help not only his friend, but his injured, drug-addicted brother who comes back from the war a different person.
Throughout it all, Lucas feels obligated to help every needy person he knows. It’s a huge burden, and one that he learns he can’t shoulder alone. In fact, Lucas learns a lot that summer about human nature, about war, about responsibility, and about life. And while Lucas’ life seems intolerable at times, he manages to accomplish more than most of us do in a lifetime. The end of the novel, narrated by the main character fifty years after that summer, gives the reader closure. We learn whether he ended up following his brother Roy to Viet Nam when he turned 18. We learn what happened to Cooper and Zoe and Roy. We learn how important dogs were for the rest of their lives, and we get to see the man Lucas has become.
Even though this story is filled with people who don’t know if they want to keep on living, it’s an uplifting story about hope and the importance of being needed. “Stay” is about accepting others with all their foibles, dealing with consequences, believing in people, and just being there for those you love.
This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.