Cover image for Some things that stay
Some things that stay
Willis, Sarah.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Physical Description:
275 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
710 Lexile.
Program Information:
Reading Counts RC High School 7.1 20 Quiz: 25097 Guided reading level: NR.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



For the first time in her nomadic-style life, 15-year-old Tamara Anderson is happy. But once again, Tamara's life is shaken when she learns her mother has tuberculosis, which leaves the teenager in charge of two younger siblings and an artistic--and near lunatic--father.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Tamara Anderson is never allowed to stay. Her artist father, always in search of a new rural landscape, forces the family to move every spring, "like birds migrating, except we don't get back to a familiar place." It's probably never easy to be 15, but for Tamara, who is 15 when this memorable first novel takes place in 1954, it's especially tough--moving to rural New York with your unconventional parents and living in a farmhouse where a very large nude painting of your mom hangs in the living room. It doesn't help that Tamara's room was previously occupied by the dead son of the house's owners. The neighbors across the road live in a tar-paper house, and their three kids introduce Tamara to religion and sex. All Tamara's new discoveries are challenged when her mother is diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to a sanatorium. Left with too much responsibility for her father, brother, and sister, Tamara is angry, questioning, and vulnerable. She is also smart and perceptive. She tells her story in strong, short words that pack power. She learns about what lasts. --Peggy Barber

Publisher's Weekly Review

The deceptively quiet voice that inhabits this intelligent and moving first novel belongs to Tamara Anderson, 15 years old in 1954, who comes of age within an unconventional family that's struggling in an era of social conformity. Her father is a landscape painter, so the family (including Tamara's younger siblings, Robert, 11, and Megan, seven) moves every year, living in furnished houses from Georgia to Idaho to Maine, owning only what can fit in a trailer. Stuart and Liz, Tamara's parents, met when Liz modeled nude for art classes, with Stuart defying his family to marry the woman who had flirted with the Communist Party. Now they are determined to bring up their children as atheists, teaching them evolution and carefully explaining sexuality and reproduction. The '50s era, with its shadow of Moral Rearmament, is vividly evoked with references to Davy Crockett hats, the generalized fear of a Communist conspiracy and the atom bomb, as Tamara's perceptions of her new home in upstate rural New York drive the narrative. She explores her new school, and religion and sexuality with the boy across the street, juxtaposing her need for stability against her family's transient life. When Liz becomes seriously ill with tuberculosis, the Anderson family is weighted with fear, sadness and uncertainty of a kind entirely new to them. Willis deftly balances her depiction of the domestic unit: vulnerable Tamara correctly believes no one is listening to her, and knows that in Stuart's life, art ranks above his children. Liz and Stuart are devoted to each other, and are alternately selfish and caring parents; their idiosyncrasies, such as overrationalized reckless styles of driving the family car, suggest larger problems. Not a seamless tale, the narrative is hampered by a few stale patches of exposition, but overall, Tamara's uncommonly lucid, honest and expansive view marks this as a luminous, impressive debut. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

It's 1954, and 15-year-old Tamara Anderson is searching for a place to call home. Her father, a landscape artist who is always looking for new challenges, moves his family to a new state each year. When they get to rural New York, however, the family starts to unravel. Tamara's mother, a strong woman who preaches atheism to her three children, comes down with tuberculosis and is sent to a sanatorium. Meanwhile, the children are drawn to the tattered family across the road. Rusty teaches Tamara about sex, and his church-going older sister Helen fascinates Tamara's younger siblings. Willis's writing is clear and fresh, capturing the emotional edge of childhood and the search for home in one's heart. A bit like a Northern Kaye Gibbons, Willis tells a coming-of-age story that is tender and moving. A first novel worth reading; recommended for public libraries.--Beth Gibbs, P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Some Things That Stay By Sarah Willis Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 9780374105808 Some Things That Stay One W e move each year in spring, like birds migrating, except we don't go back to a familiar place. We never go back. We pack up who we are and the few things that cling to us, and drive away. We are good at packing. Good at leaving behind. We traveled three hundred miles today, and five hundred miles yesterday, pulling behind us a small humpbacked metal trailer that wobbles and slows us down. My father would be happy without that trailer, but he needs it to haul his canvases and art supplies, allowing us the rest of the space inside for our things as an afterthought. "Oh, I suppose we need clothes," he will mutter, as we load in our cardboard boxes filled with my mother's encyclopedias, my brother's comics, my sister's stuffed animals, my record player and 45's. "But what's the rest of this stuff? Do we need it?" An hour off the highway, a half hour past the last poor excuse for a town, my father turns toward the three of us in the back seat. "We're almost there," he says as my mother drives down a two-lane blacktop road exactly like every other two-lane road that has brought us, last year and the years before, toalmost there. These roads inevitably lead to dirt lanes which we travel up, or down, or around some river, or through some bog, to where we will live for the next year, places where the occasional house stands out like a bright rainbow on a dark day. Today we turn right, onto a narrow but paved road: Moore. The woods are dense, arching over the road like arms reaching for each other in fright. My teeth are clenched and my jaw hurts. As always, I have convinced myself that this time we will be living in a suburb of some sort, or maybe the tail end of a town, where there are sidewalks, and porches, where people watch neighbors come and go, asking them in for tea and cookies. I once lived in a place with a sidewalk, but I was three and don't remember. We drive over a hill and down the other side. "This must be it," my father says. "It's a mile since we turned. Yes. There it is. This is it, kids." I can hardly breathe, because what I notice first is that I don't know which house he means, because there are two houses, directly facing each other from across the road. One is a pretty farmhouse with brown shingles, white trim, a front porch, and a big red barn. There are acres of mowed grass and a cow pasture that spreads out behind the barn and up the hill. I can see lace curtains wave from the open windows. Across the road is a tar-papered house, with no porch, and a half-dozen cars scattered about a mangy yard, the grilles glistening in the late sun like the teeth of rabid dogs. If my father turns right, into that drive, I will not get out of the car. I would rather die. We turn left, onto the stony driveway of the farmhouse. I want to shout with joy. I am so relieved it's the pretty farmhouse, and so excited we have actual neighbors, but as I get out of the car I look again at the house across the road and shudder, imagining who must live there: an old hermit with warts and a beard down to his knees. Just my luck. It is the spring of 1954. I will be fifteen in two weeks. For the next year we will live in the farthest outskirts of Mayville, in western New York, so my father can paint. His scenic oil paintings make everything seem lovely, idyllic, beautiful. But actually living in these places is quite different. From up close, the country is a deadly boring place, where people rust like old cars. Even as we drive up, I imagine us leaving. These rented houses come fully furnished, a must for my father. The owners have always moved far away and we never see them, but this house belongs to a Mr. and Mrs. Burns who have gone to live at her sister's house right in town, while she stays with a dying aunt in Albuquerque. They have left their dog here. It barks at us when we get out of the car, staying hidden under a hydrangea bush by the front porch. As my father unlocks the trailer, he yells at us to leave the dog alone, that it needs to get used to us first. I've never had a dog before. Entering a new house for the first time is like getting on a ride at the amusement park. The anticipation is always better. I imagine secret tunnels through closets, hidden rooms, forgotten diaries, maybe even a canopy bed with gauzy white lace just for me. I should know better by now. Carrying my pillow, I follow my mother along the flat slate stones that lead from the end of the drive to a side porch, which opens up into a bright and airy kitchen. There is a round pine table with two wooden chairs, floral cushions tied to the seats. The green linoleum floor is covered with a road map of fine lines and gray scuff marks. I figure this is where the Burns ate, not in the dining room, which looks formal and dark. In the back of the kitchen is a big mudroom, with steps leading down into the basement. The refrigerator is in the mudroom, empty and wellscrubbed, the door propped open like a hungry mouth. In a year, I will clean it out and leave it just like this. It is my job. In the living room there is an overstuffed couch, a matching chair, and end tables covered with starched old-lady doilies. No family pictures, just landscapes, which my father will hate because they are dull and uninspired. It doesn't matter what is on the walls though, because within the next hour my mother will take them all down and put up my father's old paintings. The first to go up will be the painting of my mother, completely naked, sitting on a chair with her legs crossed, one arm folded over her head, the other barely covering her crotch. She'll hang it in some prominent spot in the living room, where you can't miss it no matter how hard you try. My mother modeled nude for art classes and that is how my parents met. When kids ask me if that's my mother on the wall with the big boobs, I lie and say no, it's just someone who looks like her. If she hears me, she'll correct me, and tell the story about how she met my father, with more details than anyone wants to know. Robert, Megan, and I run upstairs. There are four very small bedrooms, one in the front of the house with a double bed, which we leave for my parents. I call the bedroom that faces the road and the tar-papered house. The room has yellow wallpaper and a picture of a baseball player sitting on a bench, holding a bat. I don't know who he is, but I'll leave it there. I have nothing to put in its place, unless I want to put up some of my father's paintings, which I don't. The bed is neatly made with a plain white quilt. No canopy. I throw my pillow on the bed to claim it. Megan and Robert fight over one of the other bedrooms. They know better than to mess with me. Going back downstairs I see my mother moving an end table over by the front window. Then she moves a chair up against a wall, and asks me to help her move the couch. In the dining room we slide the heavy table up against the wall so there areonly three sides to sit at, and then we cover a small dark mahogany cabinet with a sheet and carry it into the basement. We are making room for my father's stretched canvases, his two easels, his toolbox, cut lumber, rolls of canvas, boxes of paints, brushes, and charcoals, and his crates of linseed oil and turpentine. By nightfall, my mother will have removed the curtains in the living room, so more light will come in. This shifting of furniture always makes me nervous. I worry we are not where we are supposed to be, that some mistake has been made. These people may be out to lunch and come home. I will feel this way for weeks. We unpack the trailer quickly, competently, just as we packed it, as if those minutes we save will make our stay seem longer, as if by emptying the trailer and stashing it on the far side of the barn, we can pretend we have lived here all along. The dog, whose name is Kip, comes out from his hiding spot, and with his tail between his legs he inches up to us and sniffs our feet. He is an old beagle with sad eyes and short brittle hair that seems to break off rather than shed, and his ears hang almost to the ground, caked with dried mud. My father says the Burns didn't take Kip with them because they now live next to a busy street, and they are afraid he might get hurt. He is supposed to stay outside. There is also an enormous black bull, two dozen beef cattle, and a milk cow. The beef cattle stay in the back pasture and Mr. Burns told my father we should just ignore them. The milk cow has another pasture, off to the right of the barn, and the bull has his own pen, about two acres, between the barn and the beef cattle. Before we moved here, my father assured the Burns he knew about cows, then my mother went to the library. She will be in charge of milking the dairy cow. Just after my mother leaves to go get some groceries, some people pull up the driveway and get out. My stomach turns. Butthey wave and address my father by name. The Burns have come to see us get settled. Luckily we are outside when they come, so we don't have to open the door and ask them in. Mr. Burns is a heavy man who is almost bald; he has more hair coming out his ears than covering his head. Even though he's bald, I don't think he is as old as my father, who's almost sixty and has a full head of thick white hair. Mr. Burns wears overalls and a plaid flannel shirt, and his round basketball belly presses taut against the front of his overalls. Mrs. Burns is very short and just as round as Mr. Burns, but her head is covered with tight brown curls. Her eyes are the green of wet grass. She wears jeans and a plaid shirt, and the clunkiest brown shoes I have ever seen. She glances over at the house, and her face kind of freezes as if she is lost in thought. Mr. Burns touches her on the arm and she turns away. They smile at us, but just quick smiles, with their lips closed. Mr. Burns shakes our hands, and Mrs. Burns nods and says hello. Mrs. Burns' voice is gravelly, like it was used too much and wants to quit working. "We won't come in," Mr. Burns says. "We don't want to intrude. Just introduce ourselves and make sure you got in all right. Any trouble finding the place?" My father says the directions were perfect, and thanks for the letters they sent with maps and notes about the house. The dog has scrambled out from under the hydrangea at the sound of the Burns' car and is beside himself with excitement. He rolls on his back and Mr. Burns squats down to scratch his belly. His tail thumps on the ground, scattering pebbles in its wake. "Well, you must be worn out," Mr. Burns says, straightening back up. "But there are a few things I think you might want to know." He tells us kids that we are allowed to wander in the milk cow's pasture, which is fifteen acres and has a pond we can swim in, as long as we have some adult supervision. He also tellsus to stay away from the bull, which doesn't really need saying. The bull looks as if he has a constant headache and if you glance at him funny he might decide to kill you. He has horns about a foot long that curl into deadly points. "There're some tools out in the barn," Mr. Burns says to my father. He pulls at his earlobe and nods his head toward the barn. "Let me show you where they are." It's my mother he should be showing. The only thing my father can do is paint. "Well," Mrs. Burns says, "I was hoping to talk to your mother about the cow." She looks at me, since I'm the oldest, but I don't know what to say. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, she says, "Well, I guess I should show you then." I nod, and return her tight smile, but I still don't know what I'm supposed to do. "Well, follow me," she says. Megan and Robert stick close to me as I follow Mrs. Burns to a gate where the barbed-wire fence meets the back right corner of the barn. Mrs. Burns unclips a hook, and the gate swings open. The cow, white with black splotches, is in the field, right past the muddy area behind the barn. It raises its head and stares at us. "Just don't move too fast," she says. "And watch where you step." The cow freezes in mid chew as we approach. She holds so still you can tell she's alive only by the fact she's standing. As we get a few feet away she stumbles backwards, but Mrs. Burns calls out, "Hey, sweetie, come here, sweetie," and the cow freezes again. Mrs. Burns puts her hand on the cow's wide nose, and it moos. Robert jumps a foot. "Come on now," Mrs. Burns says. "Let her get used to you. Give her a pat. You've been around cows before, right?" Remembering what my father has told us, we all nod. Megan, the youngest, is the first one to touch the cow, then me. My brother, Robert, hangs back, as if he is waiting his turn, which, if it's up to him, will be never. He's wearing his stupid DavyCrockett hat, as if he is some brave hunter, but he's really just a coward. A fat little chubby coward. His ears stick out under his hat like handles. 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. "You say your mother knows how to milk a cow?" Mrs. Burns says, sounding concerned, maybe even doubtful we have a mother at all. We nod. If reading dozens of books can teach you how to milk a cow, then my mother knows how. "Well then, all right. Let's go back now." Mrs. Burns is so bent over she has no problem looking where she's walking. And now I know why she wears those shoes. Mine are covered with mud, and probably manure. I'd throw them away, but they are my only pair of sneakers. Mrs. Burns shows us how to close the gate. "Always make sure you close it behind you," she says. "I wouldn't want the cow to get out and wander on the road." Their car is the second car I've seen on this road since we came here. The cow would probably be safe taking a nap right dab in the middle of the road, but I tell her we'll be careful. "What's her name?" Megan asks in her sweet little voice she does so well. "Well, I guess she doesn't have a name. She's a cow." Megan and I look at each other. Mr. Burns and my father are waiting by the Burns' car. "If you don't mind," Mr. Burns says, "I'd like to come by on Sundays after church, to check on the cattle, set out some fresh hay. I won't be a bother to you at all." "Not a bother at all," my father says. "We go to the Methodist church in Westfield, about a forty-minute ride from here," Mrs. Burns offers. "There's also a nice Baptist church right in Mayville and a Presbyterian church way over in Jamestown. We can give you directions." "Don't worry," my father says. "We'll be fine." There is silence for a minute while Mr. Burns looks at all of us, tugging again on his ear. "Gosh," he says. "I didn't think to ask if you all are Jewish. With a name like Anderson, I didn't think about you being Jewish." He looks over at Mrs. Burns, as if maybe this is a problem. "Oh, we're not Jewish," my father says. The Burns look relieved. They even laugh. "All right then, we'll see you Sunday, about one." They get in their car. Kip moves quickly and hops right over Mrs. Burns and into the front seat. Mr. Burns has to drag him out. Nose almost scraping the ground, tail between his legs, Kip goes back to the hydrangea bush. "See you Sunday," Mr. Burns says, maybe to the dog, maybe to us. They drive off. If my mother were here she would have told them right out that we're atheists. But my father is like me in just this one way: we don't mention things if we don't have to. No one's ever asked us if we're Jewish before. I wonder which is worse. We move in spring because my father wants to see the land bare, before it fills in with the flesh of green that summer brings. He would move us in the dead of winter, but my mother refuses him this, saying it would be too disorienting for us to change schools halfway through a year. Except he gets so edgy during that time when things begin to bud that my mother packs earlier and earlier each year, and my father just happens to find us houses that are in need of tenants in May, not June. So we are pulled out of school and shuffled into a new one for the last few weeks. Mymother excuses these moves while school is still going by saying this way we can get to know a few kids first, and we'll have someone to play with during summer vacation. The fact that we never get invited to other kids' houses, or invite anyone to ours, doesn't change her mind. Things that are rational should work. She has a hypothesis. She will just repeat the experiment until she is proven right. It is a wonder we even survive these moves. My mother, who does the driving, refuses to wear glasses, even though she needs them for distance. When I was six, she went to an eye doctor who told her she had to get glasses, and she dutifully went out and bought a pair. But she didn't like what she saw. "Oh," she said. "Everything has such sharp edges. I didn't know that." Then one day as we were driving on the highway she got upset. "I hate these signs they put up, all these advertisements for such junk! The words jump out at you. It's distracting." She took off her glasses. "Much better," she said. That was the last I ever saw of her glasses. My father hardly ever drives, even though his eyes are fine. He doesn't drive because of what he does see. Lines and colors and shapes moving past him too quickly to get a hold of. He used to drive at least half of the time during our long trips, but he drove slowly, weaving and stopping randomly, until my mother simply said I'll drive , and she did. My father never told my mother to put her glasses back on. My mother never told him to keep his eyes on the road. In the morning, my mother milks the cow as we all watch. She has trouble at first holding on to the teats, and getting the milk to go in the bucket. The cow makes funny low sounds as if she istrying to sing with a stomachache. Finally my mother gets the hang of it and milks her dry. Holding up the bucket, she asks us who wants to try some milk. We decline. Watching it come out of the cow changes everything. I may never drink milk again. She names the bull Harry after her father, who died of tuberculosis, and the cow Edith after her mother, who drove into a tree four months later. The beef cattle remain nameless, which is for the best since they are just walking hamburgers and pot roast. While my mother is gone, registering us at the new school which we will start attending on Monday, Megan, Robert, and I find a boy's bike in the barn. It's carmine red, with rusted handlebars and flat tires, but it's still a find; we have never had a bike, our own or anyone else's. When our mother comes back, Robert begs her to take us into town to have the tires filled. She agrees, after phoning the Burns to ask if it is all right that we ride the bike. It's too big for Megan, but Robert and I could give her rides, and she is just as excited as we are. On the way to the Texaco station on the far side of town, my mother informs us that the bike belonged to the Burns' son, Timothy. "He died," she says. "Last year. He was only sixteen. He died of leukemia. That's cancer of the blood. It's very sad." "Did he die in the house ?" asks Robert, who reads the same horror magazines over and over again-- Chilling Tales, Worlds of Fear , and The Vault of Horror --scared each time, maybe more scared each time. He tapes the pages back together when they fall apart and stubbornly packs them up in his cardboard box, refusing to leave them behind, even though my father thinks he should. It is the only time Robert ever defies my father. I think having horror magazines makes him feel protected. They are his villains, his monsters. He hasn't brought any on this short trip, too distracted by the bike. My mother pauses as if she might not answer his question, but, of course, she finally does. She is a big believer in information. "Yes, he died in the house," she says. My brother gasps. "No!" "Where?" I ask. She pauses again. "In bed," she says. "Which bed is that?" I ask. "Yours," she says. "But Mrs. Burns said she bought new sheets and blankets, just for you." "Oh, great," I say. "I'm so glad. That makes all the difference." I wish she would have lied. There are many times I wished she would have lied, but this time I really wish she could have. Sometimes lies are preferable to the truth. We spend a half hour at the gas station as my mother asks the attendant how the bike should be oiled, what the tire pressure should be, what bolts should be tightened. The attendant, a twenty-year-old acne-faced nerd with gray teeth and oil-stained fingernails, does more than answer my mother's questions. He fixes the bike for us-- for her . She is good at this, getting people to like her, because she asks so many questions, then listens intently to the answers. Besides, she is breathtakingly beautiful, with golden-blond hair, green eyes, and big breasts. You wouldn't know we were related except for those breasts. Even with big breasts, I'm no looker. My hair is the color of wet sand, my eyes are ordinary brown, and my lips are lopsided, the top lip larger than the bottom. He wouldn't have fixed the bike for me. Before we go back to the rented farm with the now slickly oiled bike, she takes us to the library, her favorite place on earth. She tells Robert to find a book on bike maintenance and Megan and I are to find books about the area we now live in, as if anything interesting might have been written about Mayville, New York. I would complain, but it is good to see her acting like her old self. She hasn't forced us to go to the library for months. She hasn't discussed, page by page, the latest National Geographic for even longer than that. But today she seems lively and overly anxious to teach us. Just like old times. At dinner my mother says the Burns rented this house because they couldn't bear to be in it any longer after their son died. She says they should sell it, but can't, because their memories hold them to the house like an anchor. She says those memories can pull them under so they can't breathe any longer. She says they have jumped ship, but not swum far enough to escape the undertow. My mother loves metaphors almost as much as she loves the bare facts of life. I am sleeping in a room where someone died. A kid, like me. Right here. Right in the space I'm in. Every time I hear a strange sound my eyes fly open and I am sure, for a brief moment, I see something, so I close my eyes again. The attic of the house, which can be reached through a trapdoor in the ceiling, is filled with boxes of the dead boy's stuff, and we are not allowed to go up there. I hear noises coming from up in the attic. I can hear the boxes whisper. Out behind the house, just past the garden, where the ground begins to rise into the hill, is a half-completed bomb shelter made of gray cinder blocks and cement. There is a doorway, but no door, and steps leading down to the cement floor six feet below. The walls are finished and they extend two feet above the ground. There is no roof. I suppose the Burns stopped building it when their son died. I try to imagine my parents without us kids. I can. Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Willis Excerpted from Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher. Excerpted from Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.