Jolene McIlwain’s book ‘Sidle Creek’ offers an insider look at Appalachia : NPR
In 2017 piece for Salonwriter and historian Elizabeth Catte wrote: “Each generation of politicians, writers, analysts, academics and economists believes that it has discovered something unique or horrible or paradoxical about Appalachia.”
Indeed, especially since 2016, it seems, and the release of now popular Republican senator JD Vance – and too damn – book, Hillbilly Elegy, there was an odd smugness among people who had never set foot in the region casually analyzing and diagnosing it like armchair therapists. Thankfully, there is too those push back against oversimplified narratives.
All this to say that I suggest that non-Appalachian readers set aside everything they think they know about the very large region (spanning 423 counties across 13 states) when they pick up Sidle Creek, Jolene McIlwain’s debut short story collection. Taking place on the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania, where the author grew up and now lives, the 22 stories in Sidle Creek charm, surprise, and convey a deep love of the people and place McIlwain has long called home.
The title story, which is also the first of the book, is told by a girl who is being raised by a single father and is navigating her increasingly disturbing periods. The story also gives us some of the lore surrounding the fictional Kreak Sidle, who is mentioned in almost every piece and connects people and places throughout the book. The Sidle is “not a big creek, but cool enough for trout,” the narrator tells us, and is known locally for its healing properties – one man blinded by flash burns regained sight after falling in the water – as well as his. ability to bite back when misused — the trout refused to bite in the season after a woman tried to drown herself in the deepest channel of the creek.
One of the recurring motifs of the collection is a masculine softness that is not always easy to express in words but that is nevertheless deeply felt. In “Steer,” for example, a 50-year-old father, Roy, contemplates his son approaching his 16th birthday. Roy wants to teach his son to be a man who can roll with the punches of life, but “he also wanted him to be free and light and open. He was afraid that his son would inherit from him the maintenance and the power of this border. around his heart he was constantly strengthening and closing to guarantee that the hurt does not break it.” In another story, “Seed to Full”, a man does not know how to comfort his wife or convey his own grief, so he focuses on what he can control, his work as a locksmith, and builds a coffin “straight and true . from the wood [he’d himself] sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until [his] hands were raw.”
Another recurring theme is the care of the community, and not in the small town Hollywoodized “aw shucks” kind of way, but rather in the difficult and intentional work of maintaining contact with one’s neighbors and trying to provide what people need. In one story a game warden takes it upon himself to check on his newly widowed neighbor. In “You Four Are the One”, the narrator Lanie and three of her friends spend the summer before sixth grade helping Lanie’s pregnant neighbor, Cinta Johns, who is bedridden after the four miscarriages in seven years she has already gone through. While Cinta’s husband is at work in the mill, the girls hold her hand, walk her dog, make her tea, paint her toenails, and mostly take her mind off the pressure. which is increasing to ensure that you are able to carry the pregnancy to term. Lanie’s mother is the one who sends the girls away at first, but Lanie soon finds meaning in work as well. “In Cinta Johns’ house we weren’t four nerdy girls with a flat chest in one piece,” she points out. “We were part of her Support Team.”
McIlwain is no Pollyanna, though, and Sidle Creek includes stories of community failure and violence well. In “Where Lottie Lives,” the titular Lottie leaves her home, the haunt of her childhood, crumbling around her even as neighbors come sniffing about buying the property. In “Eminent Domain,” a woman recognizes that she will have to leave if she wants to “be something that isn’t a few steps away from madness.” In the background of many of the stories are hints of wider issues in the region — mine closures, workplace injuries, lack of easily accessible medical care — but these realities are not at the center of the characters’ lives.
Instead, Sidle CreekThe stories mostly focus on people making their lives where they were born and raised, as well as some who came from abroad — and the small and big dramas of their lives are given in beautiful prose.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and romance author All those who love my Mother.