Downeast: Five Maine girls and the unseen story of rural America by Gigi Georges. Harper Collins, 2021
I’ve lived in Maine since 1949, growing up in Union, a small town in the midcoast area. My parents moved from New Jersey to Maine where my dad grew up in another, smaller town, West New Portland off Rt. 27 on the way to Canada. My sisters and I enjoyed the freedom of roaming the woods and fields that comprised the 187 acres of Sennebec Hill Farm. For years, we made do with the income from raising laying hens and shipping endless crates of eggs off to the Boston and New York markets. In the early 1960s, the bottom fell out of the poultry business and most in the business, including my parents, went into some serious debt (think half a million dollars in today’s economy.)
That heritage helped me connect both intellectually and emotionally with Gigi’s book. It further helped that Downeast Maine is my favorite part of the state. When I helped manage software for the majority of Maine’s public libraries, I always looked forward to heading out Route nine, AKA the Airline, to visit those in Calais, Lubec, Pembroke and Prospect Harbor.
In Downeast, the author condenses four years of observation, interaction, research, and emotion into 241 pages that read like great fiction. Inside are the stories of that portion of Downeast Maine surrounding Narraguagus High School as experienced by five girls who went to the high school. It is the intertwined story of Willow, Vivian, McKenna, Audrey, and Josie, but as you read, it becomes so much more. It’s a journey through their lives that expands to encompass their families, some close and loving, others fractured and cruel. It gives you a look at how the sea, and isolation from things we tend to take for granted are both frightening and reassuring.
The girls are amazing in their candor: Willow when she talks about her father’s addiction and violent behavior, her mother’s journey theough the abuse, and what she does afterward to reclaim her life, McKenna, whose athletic prowess might have translated into scholarship, but who felt the pull of her family’s lobstering heritage more strongly, Vivian, conflicted about her family’s religious beliefs, using them, along with what she observes around her to become an amazing writer. Audrey, a member of a state championship basketball team who must wrestle with her ambivalence over where to complete her education, and Josie who goes to Yale where the death of an uncle forces her to examine her beliefs as well as her family dynamics.
Layered along with their individual experiences are well documented statistics regarding the economic, social and demographic realities affecting Washington County. Teachers, religious leaders, and people who migrated to the area are all parts of this story. Their struggles with racism, bullying, homophobia, poverty, mental health issues, and the lack of available vocational training are aspects these dedicated souls work on in an attempt to make staying close to home a realistic option for these girls and their peers.
I was greatly impressed with the insight and honesty voiced by all five girls when it came to discussing political beliefs, religion, peers and relationships. If you care about Maine, about young people, about our future, or simply like reading an excellent and thoughtful book about gutsy females, this is for you.
John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.