The prevailing narrative among many of those who write about rural America is that it’s a place of quiet desperation, rife with economic turmoil, dealt with stoically by the brave few who choose to stay there.
Gigi Georges, a writer, academic and former Clinton administration official, thinks that narrative isn’t particularly fair to the residents of rural areas — especially for the people who live in Washington County, less than an hour’s drive from Georges’ home in Southwest Harbor.
“It really felt like my lived and observed experience of life in Maine was at odds with the kind of downbeat narrative that has dominated coverage about rural America,” Georges said. “I saw plenty of challenges, of course, but I saw just as many amazing stories of community, and being connected to the land, and resilience.”
Between 2016 and 2020, Georges set out to write a book about life in Washington County. After conducting a series of interviews with local residents and high school students, she eventually narrowed the focus of her book to the lives and stories of five teenage girls attending Narraguagus High School in Harrington.
On May 25, “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America,” comes out, published by HarperCollins.
Georges, a New York City native who for the past 15 years has split her time between Southwest Harbor and New Hampshire, said that after getting to know local people — especially local youth — she found that their stories were not only fascinating, but also exemplified the joys and challenges of life in small towns.
“Though people living in Washington County may be geographically isolated, that’s meant that they rely on their communities in a big way, and develop an immense amount of social capital,” Georges said. “Family is incredibly important. There’s a lot of respect for nature. And there is dignity in work.”
The five girls Georges chose to follow over the course of several years — Willow, Vivian, McKenna, Audrey and Josie, though those aren’t their real names — all come from different backgrounds. McKenna plans to follow in her father’s footsteps fishing for lobster, while Josie goes on to attend Yale University. Willow struggles with a family that is rocked by addiction and abuse, and Vivian struggles with her conservative, religious upbringing. And Audrey is a basketball star who wins a scholarship to Bates College.
“Women can often be ancillary players, or end up being pawns or victims, when people talk about rural places. But these young women are fierce. Down East women in general are fierce,” Georges said. “And these girls are choosing, also, to maintain a connection to their home, to Washington County, whether they live there or not. It also runs counter to the narrative that you have to leave in order to find success.”
Prior to focusing on her writing and on teaching political science at Boston College, Georges held a variety of positions in both government and academia. She was previously program director for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovation Strategies Initiative, and also served as communications director for the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Prior to that, she was a special assistant to the president in the Clinton White House and was former New York senator Hillary Clinton’s state director.
With so much focus on urban areas in her work, focusing on rural areas was something Georges had always wanted to do. Among the many things she discovered was the fact that success in a place like Washington County has less to do with things like money, prestige or power, and more with making connections within the community, and building bridges between individuals or groups.
“I think there is reason to be optimistic, despite the many challenges,” Georges said. “There is much work to be done. But there is something very powerful about what is already present here, and more broadly in small towns all across America.”
Georges knows she could easily have been perceived as a big city outsider coming into town to write a book about small town residents. But she said that was not the experience she had at all, during her several years of research and interviews.
“I would 100 percent have understood if folks had told me they were not interested in talking to me,” she said. “But I was really wonderfully surprised by how open and honest so many people were in sharing their lives with me. These girls in particular gave me the gift of their truth, and for that I am very grateful.”