"Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America," | Reviewed by Joan Kletzker
“Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” is an informative and educational description of rural, small town America. It’s about community, roots, staying, leaving and returning.
For four years the author, Gigi Georges, interviewed and shadowed five young women in their late teens and early 20s in the poorest county of Maine. I believe it is descriptive of many areas in America, from East to West, North to South. In many ways, the book reminded me of Franklin County, where we live. “Downeast” is a hopeful observation of an America that isn't in as bad a shape as we think. Anyone interested in a present-day social commentary of America should read this book.
One young woman, Willow, comes from a drug addicted, divorced household. She is somewhat of a nomad, bouncing from grandparents to friends' families and back home again. Willow is a photographer and writer. Another girl, Vivian, is very close to her family unit, and also is a writer, one questioning her church and her town itself. She doesn’t want to lose her family. The third young woman, McKenna, is an athlete with a passion for lobster fishing, the family business, a predominately male business. Audrey, a basketball star, wins a scholarship but is beginning to question her chosen career. Josie, a valedictorian, attends Yale and wants to change the world.
The author takes us deep into the Downeast community, facing and changing her own opinions and biases. Much of the county and town are comprised of multi-generational people with deep roots and commitment to the area. She interviews teachers and administrators who care deeply for the community and the teens in high school who face many, many things. The art teacher, principal and assistant principal are pivotal adults in these kids' lives. They have enormous empathy and compassion for the students. The art teacher encourages these girls with their art and their stories.
The educators also are worried about the boys being left behind because the emphasis in the last few years have been on empowering women, and rightly so. But in that process and the economic downturn of the community, the boys are slipping through the cracks. The teachers are starting to address that issue; a civil rights and a gender equality group have been formed. The families have helped each other out tremendously as Covid crippled the lobster fishing economy—no restaurants, means no lobster.
There is other good news, however. The author mentions several families who have migrated to Downeast in the last decade or so. Some are immigrants; some are from other parts of the United States. They have come for a variety of reasons and are becoming community pillars in their own right.
There is a message of hope for the community and for small town America. The author states, "that beneath the weight of shared troubles, I found something else—the energy of shared community, helping ease burdens in ways that well meaning strangers and codified institutions could never do."
She continues, speaking of the young women she interviewed, "Their journeys have only begun...Some will stay, and others will depart...never to physically return. Even if they do not end up in Downeast... they will always be part of it." She continues by stating "that the yearning ..for community is stronger than it has been in modern history. ...We learn the value of connection that transcends physicality. It is something Downeasters and millions of other small town Americans have practiced for generations. ... In the end, we are left to consider that, perhaps it is not they who have been left behind, but the rest of us."