A new book shares the stories of five girls coming of age in rural Washington County.
By Will Grunewald
Gigi Georges used to be a city person. She grew up in Brooklyn, moved to DC to work as a policy adviser in the Clinton White House, then went back to New York, where she continued to work in politics and policy. Her husband, though, had a penchant for quieter places — Mount Desert Island in particular — and so the couple moved to New England, splitting time between New Hampshire and MDI’s Southwest Harbor. In that new terrain, Georges’s interests started to drift from urban to rural issues, which eventually led her to Washington County, the farthest stretch of Maine’s Down East region.
In 2016, she started paying regular visits to Narraguagus High School, in Harrington, which serves several Down East towns. Eventually, she got to know five girls she felt represented a wide range of experiences that local kids might have: Willow grows up with an abusive father; Vivian is from a prominent family and grapples with the fallout from her parents’ divorce; McKenna aspires to become a lobsterboat captain; Audrey is a standout basketball player who gets admitted to Bates; Josie goes off to school at Yale and finds herself straddling a cultural divide. The girls, all of whom Georges gives pseudonyms, form the backbone of her first book, Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America ($27.99, hardcover). Their resilience and their appreciation for where they’re from, Georges says, is cause enough to be optimistic about the future of down-on-their-luck small towns everywhere.
How did you first get into this project?
After moving to New England, I became more and more attuned to the dominant downbeat narrative about rural America that’s often portrayed in national media, and I realized it was in so many ways at odds with my lived and my observed experience. I reached out to Reverend Scott Planting, then head of the Maine Seacoast Mission. We had some long talks about that, and he said, “Just go down the road to Washington County.” So I started making regular trips to Cherryfield and Harrington and Milbridge. I noticed very quickly that there was something going on with the young women in the high school. It struck me that they were excelling and in many ways surpassing young men in academics, sports, arts, and general leadership. That’s when I thought there was an opportunity to tell a different story about contemporary young women in rural America.
The five girls you focused on really opened up their lives to you, even though people from Down East are supposed to be wary of people from away.
I think having the introduction through Scott Planting, and then through the school staff, was important to initially opening the door. Still, I found everyone throughout the community to be incredibly warm and gracious toward me — and I would have understood if they’d looked askance. And with the girls in particular, who I ended up spending thousands of hours with, I just tried to be respectful of them and their time, and I think they saw that I’m not an invasive person but that I wanted to know their stories and their perspective on growing up there in ways they were comfortable sharing. They gave me this gift of trust and, ultimately, friendship.
You write that, very often, the conventional outside view of rural places is masculine — tough men doing dirty jobs and so on.
Right, and it’s not to take anything away from the young men who work tremendously hard too, and some of them do excel, of course. But this was a different way of looking at what’s going on in small towns, through the lens of these young women who in many ways are bridging past and present and future in interesting and sometimes complex ways. Yes, there are big challenges, but this generation is paving the way for better things to come.
Did you write with an urban audience in mind — people who don’t have much familiarity with small-town living?
To a certain extent, I think so. But I hoped the book would appeal to people from rural places too, seeing a depiction of a small community that isn’t that dominant narrative. I imagine it gets exhausting to always see things portrayed that way. Still, it was probably targeted at more of an urban and suburban readership, to expand the lens for them. There’s always a more nuanced story to tell — to peel back some layers for people who normally only see the stereotypes.
Politics aren’t a big part of the book, but you do note that reporting and researching through the Trump years gave some urgency to painting a fuller picture of people from Washington County.
Rural communities were thrust into the center of the broader political conversation all of a sudden, which is certainly one reason I think the book is timely. The details of Down East are unique, but the overall narrative is remarkably similar. Poverty in Washington County is comparable to some of the poorest counties in Ohio or Tennessee. It’s often generational. There’s the physical isolation. There’s the story of losing manufacturing — different industries in different places, but a familiar situation. Washington County has a tough challenge with opioid use, and that fits into the broader rural conversation. In the takeaway, though, Washington County is also an example of the good that’s happening in other rural places, where there’s a tremendous sense of community and loyalty to place and the valuing of work ethic and tradition.
So much so that it’s difficult for most of the girls to envision life away from it.
I think that’s right. There’s McKenna, who’s representative of this really important strand of young women who are looking at the fishing industry and saying, “I could do that. I could captain a boat. And I could do it just as well.” And there’s Audrey, the basketball star, who has this wonderful opportunity to leave home and go to college at Bates but finds that it’s a mismatch for her. She wants to return home and become a speech pathologist, and she wants to serve the community she came from. She longs to be closer to her family and community.
On the whole, their stories seem to rebut an idea that the only way for rural kids to succeed is to get out.
There’s work to be done in support of these communities, but I came away optimistic about the roles that many of these young women are playing there. I felt a tremendous energy around these communities. I think we don’t know where Josie will end up after Yale, but in every other instance, it is not a matter of escape. There’s this counter-narrative that you don’t have to escape, you can find your way, and there’s value in what small towns have to offer. The most poignant example might be Willow, who endures so much as a child and a young woman. She has a glimpse of perhaps leaving but then realizes that she loves Down East. It’s in her heart, and she could never leave.