“Over time, “Downeast” became a catchall phrase for the geography, culture and distinct accent of the northern reaches of Maine’s coast. Guidebooks will tell you that there is no precise southern or midpoint in the state where Downeast Maine begins; indeed, locals often use the term colloquially to describe any point east of where they are. But by the time you get far enough north to the coastal county marked in gray on the map-Washington County-you’re universally acknowledged to have arrived Downeast.”
September 3, 2021
Dear Mr. Hemingway,
Rural America! Between recent presidential elections and the current pandemic, there has been no shortage of news covering this area in our country. I am not going to get into elaborate definitions of what constitutes a rural county in the United States, but for all intents and purposes…it is the opposite of urban (city) living. As you know, I have lived in Maine for over 15 years. Even though I am not a “true” Mainer, I am intrigued by this magnificent state and how it ticks from county to county. I recently had the opportunity to read Gigi Georges’ book, Downeast. Georges follows the lives of five young women who attended the same high school in rural Maine. For four years, Georges interviewed, shadowed and immersed herself into these women’s past, present and future opportunities. She underlined the common hardships of living in a rural area in one of the most rural states in America while accentuating the hidden beauty that resides from within all through the lens of five women.
Maine is often referred to as “vacationland” and “the way life should be”. But let’s face it, it’s not all cozy cabins, lobster rolls and L.L.Bean. Rural Maine has its own set of challenges unique to its location that have impacted generation after generation. In Downeast, Georges introduces her reader to Mckenna the softball star, Willow the photographer, Vivian the writer, Audry the basketball star and Josie the valedictorian. All five of these young women went to Narraguagus High School in Washington County. While Georges highlights drug and alcohol addiction, economic distress, and a variety of family dynamics that oftentimes serve as barriers for women living in rural Maine, she also showcases the true gumption and grit these five women possess that make their stories possible to tell.
“The challenges faced by the rural swath of our nation run deep. But hope is not lost in small-town America. Far from it. True, places like Downeast Washington County are geographically isolated, continue to struggle with persistent poverty, and lose too many in their midst to opioid addiction. But they also embody some of the strongest tenets of our American model-through their work ethic, closeness of community, deep social capital, devotion to the natural surroundings that help sustain them, love of country, and intense drive to improve their lot in life. Not every girl will be a hero in the narrative of small-town America’s survival. But the choices that rural girls make, and the paths they travel, lie at the core of what’s to come. It’s time, at last, to allow these girls to speak for themselves.”
Georges opened my eyes to the sense of community, family roots and values that have truly stood the test of time and are very much present to this day in Washington County. These essential elements add simplistic beauty to the everyday trials that accompany the leading ladies in this work of nonfiction. In Downest, Georges shares with readers the importance of being the messenger of these individual stories and what she hopes readers will take away when they finish. There is no shortage of details in her book and the number of people she talked to, interviewed and observed in order to write this is more than I can count. Her writing is crisp, well researched, full of compassion and captures the most personal moments with empathy, respect and heartfelt sensitivity. Most importantly though, to all of the outsiders looking in…Georges’ book unveils the extraordinary sparkle that rural Maine has to offer. I hope you enjoy Downeast as much as I did.
Until next time!
Your Biggest Fan,
P.S. Be sure to check out Georges’ interview on Politics and Prose with Secretary Hillary Clinton.
***I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are 100% my own. If I don’t like it…I don’t share it!