Pros: Very intriguing setup; good characters
Cons: Weird switch partway through
Rating: 4 out of 5
Ike Hamill’s novel Stay Away has a setup that really drew me in. There’s a town in Maine that has a place people call the Trading Tree. There one might find a mysterious, rather dapper man who’s willing to make a trade. You never know what he’ll want, but he can give you almost anything. Eric wants to know if he should leave his aunt, uncle, and cousins behind and go mend fences with his mother. He doesn’t even realize, when a man gives him advice on the matter, that he’s made a trade–one he hasn’t paid for. Just two years later he finds himself on the run: his mother is dead, and a man keeps coming to him in his dreams insisting that he pay up his end of the trade. He returns to Maine, just as his cousin Lily runs away after losing her job. When Lily returns, her brother Wendell goes missing. Various trades are coming to fruition, and it seems almost everyone has a history with the Trading Tree. Unfortunately, the details of what happens with the tree tend to fade with time, such that people never quite remember what happened. Of course the trades eventually go wrong, and Eric and his friends and family find themselves in a fight for their lives.
I felt like this book had an abrupt change in… sub-genre, I guess? part-way through. It went from this really neat exploration of what the Trader might want and how he operates to a relatively standard monster story. At this point some of the hints about what’s going on also fall by the way-side. (I never did figure out what on earth one part involving Wendell was supposed to lead up to, and what was with the fish?) It didn’t wreck the book at all, but it was disappointing. I couldn’t help feeling like the story could have been more than it was.
The characters are interesting. Can I tell you how nice it is to have a front-and-center male/female friendship that doesn’t involve sex or romantic feelings? That’s one cliché that Hamill neatly avoided. One of my favorite characters is Reynold, Eric’s uncle and Lily’s father. He has odd sayings that mostly serve to confuse his kids, and he’s just kind of an odd duck. His relationship with Zinnia, his wife, is also rather interesting. It isn’t a perfect marriage, but it isn’t a bad marriage either. It just has its ups and downs, the way most relationships do.
One of the reasons people keep leaving is that it’s such a dead-end town, but it’s also one of those places where the patina of time away (or perhaps the Trader’s influence) causes people to eventually forget how bad it was and come back. The story takes place in the 1970s–I guess Hamill wanted to do something different than the ever-rehashed 80s. The book has a great sense of place, right down to remembering that the characters have to stand up and go over to the television to change channels.
This isn’t a perfect story, but it’s a very good one, and I certainly enjoyed it. Note that it does include gore and violence.