Her family’s relocation not only meant a new way of life for Georges, but also a very different childhood for her daughter than the one she had growing up across the river from New York City. The national conversation about rural America had a “very downbeat tenor” at the time and Georges couldn’t help but wonder what effect it would have on her daughter? Would she feel the need to escape her rural childhood to find happiness? Could she have a fulfilling life and career without abandoning the small town she was raised in?
These questions provided the spark for her new book, “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America.” She set out to find answers by peppering her local reverend with questions about the young people in the community, and then a principal, and superintendent. “I wasn’t really sure where I was going to take this, it was more of an exploration,” she said.
Through this inquiry she eventually found the five women who would become the central characters to her book. They were young women growing up in Downeast Washington County, an area that fit all the stereotypes of rural America: an older population due to an outflux of young people, industries that were succumbing to market pressure, high rates of poverty and years of economic stagnation. But these women seemed to be thriving and achieving despite the challenges. They were happy and succeeding although their communities had significant hardships. “What I was hearing about rural America didn’t feel quite like what I was seeing,” she said. “I felt like the lens wasn’t quite wide enough that maybe it wasn’t capturing everything.” She spent the next four years following the lives of these women as they made the journey to adulthood. Each one had a slightly different story that was representative of the community:
The scholar who ended up at an Ivy League school. The girl from a family struggling with abuse and opioid addiction. The empowered woman who supported herself through lobster fishing. The basketball star and hometown hero. And the girl from the established, well-to-do family.
What results is a book that goes beyond the typical media accounts of struggle and gives voice to the young women coming out of these towns.
As someone who recently moved with my family from the city to a more rural area in New England, and as a journalist who is interested in telling the stories of communities far away from my own, I was curious how Georges was careful in telling a story about an unfamiliar place in a way didn’t promote stereotypes. And how she established herself as a confidant to the community that entrusted her to tell their story.
How did the idea for this book come about?
I moved to New Hampshire in late 2013. And I was paying close attention to what was going on in rural America, as many people were at the time. And what I was hearing didn’t quite match what I was seeing. Raising a daughter in a more rural place, I started to see that what what we so often hear in the broader national conversation that tends to focus on hopelessness and despair wasn’t what I was seeing. I saw something else; something more than that. I saw thriving despite the challenges. Hope, not hopelessness. And a community spirit.
There’s a friend of ours who is a reverend based at a nonprofit called the Maine Seacoast Mission. I sat down with him early on in my thinking process. And he said, “You know, if you’re interested in rural issues and in rural education and you want to get a real feel for it, just go an hour up the road from Acadia National Park. You’ll be really surprised by what you see.”
He made a couple of introductions to the school superintendent in Downeast Washington County and to the local principal and a couple of other folks. They were all incredibly welcoming. I didn’t go in with a preconceived set of ideas. I went in, essentially, with a blank slate. And they were incredibly gracious and said, “Look, if you want to sit down with a bunch of the kids of high school, we’ll arrange it.” Then I did a series of informal focus groups, and out of those focus groups came the five young women that I ended up chronicling over these past four years.
When I met the girls through the focus groups I had this “aha” moment where I saw the girls exceling. In many ways they surpassed the boys in academics, in athletics, in the arts, and in general ambition and leadership.
We often hear that young people need to escape rural American in order to succeed, right? There is a notion that rural American is something to be left behind, that one cannot succeed or find happiness there. That theme dominates in the media and the movies. I wanted to widen that lens. In my early time in in rural places, particularly in Maine, I saw people who were dealing with the challenges in a very upbeat, positive and optimistic way. They were people who felt good about the future of their towns, who leaned on each other who had tremendous communal spirit, and who have an amazing amount of social capital. I felt like that was something that needed to be captured.
How did you pitch the story?
I had the good fortune to have a great agent, who helped me think about how to package this. And we worked through a proposal that focused on two broad themes. The broader theme was around widening the lens on this dominant, downbeat narrative. But we really leaned into the second theme, which was following the lives of five young women in an intimate, on-the-ground way. By immersing myself in their lives and in their stories, I would be able to tell a story that has not yet been told — and that is the story of young women’s voices in rural America.
How did you deal with the ethical concerns involved in following and identifying the girls?
Right from the very beginning I gave them the option of anonymity of whether or not they wanted to use their real names. Because it’s such a small-town environment and everyone knows everyone, we had a conversation where we acknowledged that everyone in these towns would know who they were immediately. And I wanted to make sure that each of them recognized that and was comfortable with it. The level of anonymity is a thin veil, if you think about it.
I felt that changing the names would at least give them the ability to have some shield with the broader audience and some level of privacy. We had a number of discussions early on about that and came to the decision to have all of the names changed, including those of teachers, the principal, mentors and family members. I recorded and transcribed all of the interviews. Whenever there was anything sensitive that we talked about, I would go back and check and re-check with them. Ultimately, I shared their sections with them. Each of them had an opportunity to read through for accuracy all of the work that would include their stories. I said to each of them, “Tell me if anything in this is factually incorrect, if I’m reflecting anything contrary to your remembrance of it.”
There was nothing in those drafts that any of the young women felt needed to be altered or that they felt uncomfortable with. I was really pleased by that. I honestly think that that really reflected the fact that we spent so much time (prior to my writing) just going back and forth, and over all of their stories, and their remembrances. I really felt confident that I was getting the broader story right as they remembered it.
What was the reporting process like?
I spent about six months before I even started interviewing anyone digging into the data of Down East Washington County, which ended up being a really important part of the book. I got as many public records as I could about economic issues in Washington County, and about the status of rural women there, and more broadly about domestic abuse in Washington County. About marriage, childbirth and education issues, particularly around vocational education and the state of schools. And about faith and religion. Those were my big buckets.
Once I felt like I had somewhat of a grasp on that, I went in and started spending time in Washington County. Our house in Maine is an hour’s drive from there. I would get up in the morning and drive to one of the towns and spend the day interviewing the girls and, ultimately, hundreds of community members, family members, educators, and mentors who lived and worked in that area. I continued to do that over the course of the four years as I got to know more and more people.
With the girls, it started with a sit-down in the school cafeteria or in a local restaurant. That expanded eventually. With Mckenna, for example, I went out on her lobster boat a couple of times and fished with her. I went to her softball games. I went to her classes in school and to her home and visited with her family. With Josie, I visited her at Yale. I needed and wanted to be with them, and experience their lives throughout the year. There were a lot of road trips and a lot of hanging out. They were so gracious to let me tag along.
And finally, how did you take all the piles of research and notes and interview transcripts and pull it together into the book?
After each interview, I would take some notes for myself about what I saw and what I perceived. I would sit with the transcription, and quickly highlight some of the pieces that I thought were most resonant or most interesting, or that I wanted to follow up on. The vast, vast majority of interviews were recorded. It was helpful to have those transcriptions, even for some of the conversations that were not central to the book’s focus, because that gave me a sense of environment and atmosphere. I would also talk into my digital recorder or into my phone as I was driving along, and take video because I wanted to capture and remember the Downeast environment, which is really the sixth — or perhaps first — character of the book.
Monique Brouillette is a freelance journalist who covers science, health and technology. She recently relocated from Boston to southern Maine.