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‘Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America’

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Some of the best narrative nonfiction springs from when an author is able to get really granular with the subject at hand. When the writer digs deep, vein after vein of precious literary gems can be unearthed, painting vivid and compelling portraits of people and places. These stories are captivating and enlightening in the best of ways.

Some of the WORST narrative nonfiction starts in the same place. These are the stories wherein the author treats the subject(s) as some sort of vaguely anthropological study, holding themselves above the people with whom they are engaging. They parachute into a place and imagine that their brief dalliance is enough to bestow actual understanding.

The State of Maine has unfortunately seen a bit more of the latter treatment than the former in recent years, with this place and its denizens being rendered simplistically and/or stereotypically – junk shop kitsch instead of fine art.

I honestly wasn’t sure which I was going to get from “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (Harper, $27.99), the new book from Gigi Georges. I’ve been around long enough to know that these efforts to somehow “unlock” the truth of rural America often wind up being little more than condescending confirmations of the author’s already-extant attitudes, cherry picked to prop up whatever thesis they sported upon their arrival.

This book is not that.

Instead, what Georges has done is, well … do the work. Over the course of years, she spent time with the people of Washington County. Not just the five girls who served as the central figures in the narrative – although she clearly spent A LOT of time with them – but also the people in the community around them. Parents and teachers and friends and co-workers and what have you, all in service to crafting an accurate and honest rendering of who these girls are and how they both shape and are shaped by the place in which they grew up.

(Note: The names of the girls – along with some others – have been changed in an effort to protect privacy. However, for the most part, names of places and business and the like have remained the same.)

Washington County is among the country’s most rural areas. Distance and circumstance conspire to undercut the opportunities for young people in the region – particularly those of young women. That isn’t to say that success can’t be found – it can and often is. However, finding the best path to that success can be a bit more difficult than in many other places.

In “Downeast,” we meet five girls – Willow, Vivian, Mckenna, Audrey and Josie – who have grown up in the various villages and towns of Washington County. While the specifics of their backgrounds are different, the general state of their circumstances is very similar – they are women growing up in a place where opportunity for women is tougher to come by.

Audrey is the star basketball player who helped lead the local high school to a state championship and has the opportunity to turn her athletic and academic excellence into a shot at one of the state’s best colleges. Mckenna is an elite athlete in her own right, a top-shelf softball pitcher whose primary goal is to take to the water and captain her own lobster boat, just like her father. Willow has spent much of her life bouncing around, dealing with the issues that spring from her father’s struggles with addiction and abuse; she’s just looking to find her own way. Vivian is a creative soul, a writer who finds herself drifting away from the close-knit family and church life she’s lived since childhood. And Josie is the valedictorian, an elite student heading off to the Ivy League and unsure of the connection she will maintain with the place she called home for so long.

And unfurling behind and amidst these stories, the lush landscape of Washington County. The rugged natural beauty and the working waterfronts. The joys and heartbreaks that come from small town lives lived. And the people – oh, the people. We meet fishermen and teachers and coaches (and plenty of folks who are combinations therein), all of whom wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to Downeast life. Triumphs and tragedies abound.

“Downeast” could easily have been the usual dreck featuring someone from elsewhere (who believes themselves to know better) parachuting in for a few weeks or months and slapping together a story that confirmed what they believed they already know. Part of me feared it would be.

Instead, we get a thoughtful, nuanced look at a deceptively complex place and the people who live there. What Gigi Georges has done is make a good faith effort to drill down into the cultural bedrock of Washington County and share the warts-and-all results of her labors. The book is honest in both singing the region’s praises and acknowledging its faults. By placing her focus on these five different-but-similar girls, Georges has crafted a wide-ranging portrait of what it means to live in such a place in the 21st century. We’re offered real insight into these lives, full and genuine characterizations of five frankly remarkable young women (though I doubt any of them would view themselves as such).

Far from poverty tourism or half-baked cultural anthropology, “Downeast” engages with the lives of its subjects from a place of respect and egalitarianism. There’s no sense of superiority on the part of the author here, no effort to place herself above the people about whom she’s writing. And that eye-to-eye engagement is why this book works.

Well, that and the fact that Gigi Georges can really write. She has a particular knack for capturing a, for lack of a better term, vibe – as someone who has spent his share of time in Washington County, I can vouch for the fact that the energy of the place really crackles forth from the page. The characters come alive as well. These are real people, of course – this is nonfiction after all – but they actually FEEL real, which is far rarer than you might think.

“Downeast” is a fascinating read. It will capture the imaginations of those who have never set foot in Washington County, to be sure, but it will also ring familiar to those who have never left it. Growing up is hard; what this book does so well is illustrate the specific difficulties of doing so in this place and time. An insightful, incisive work of nonfiction that celebrates five special young women and the ways of their world.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2021 06:30

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