In a 2017 piece for Salon, writer and historian Elizabeth Catte wrote: “Every generation of politicians, writers, analysts, academics and economists believes it has discovered something unique or horrible or paradoxical about Appalachia.”
Indeed, especially since 2016, it seems, and the release of now Republican senator J. D. Vance’s popular — and also critiqued — book, Hillbilly Elegy, there has been an odd smugness among people who’ve never set foot in the region casually analyzing and diagnosing it like armchair therapists. Thankfully, there are also those pushing back against oversimplified narratives.
All of this to say that I suggest non-Appalachian readers put aside whatever it is they think they know about the very large region (which spans 423 counties across 13 states) when picking up Sidle Creek, Jolene McIlwain’s debut short story collection. Taking place in the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania, where the author grew up and lives now, 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 book’s first, is narrated by a girl being raised by a single father and navigating her increasingly worrisome periods. The story also gives us some of the lore surrounding the fictional Sidle Creek, which is mentioned in nearly every piece and links together the people and places throughout the book. The Sidle is “not a large creek, but cool enough for trout,” the narrator tells us, and it’s known locally for its healing properties — one man blinded by flash burns got his sight back after falling in the water — as well as its ability to bite back when used incorrectly — the trout refused to bite in the season after a woman tried to drown herself in the creek’s deepest channel.
One of the collection’s recurring motifs is a masculine softness that isn’t always easy to express in words but that is nevertheless deeply felt. In “Steer,” for instance, a 50-year-old father, Roy, contemplates his son nearing his 16th birthday. Roy wants to teach his son to be a man who can roll with the punches of life, but “he wanted him, also, to be free and light and open. He feared his son would inherit from him the maintenance and heft of this border around his heart he was constantly buttressing and closing off to guarantee hurt would not breach it.” In another story, “Seed to Full,” a man doesn’t know how to comfort his wife or convey his own grief, so he focuses on what he can control, his work as a sawyer, and builds a coffin “straight and true from wood [he’d himself] sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until [his] hands were raw.”
Another recurring theme is community care, and not in the Hollywoodized small town “aw shucks” kind of way, but rather in the difficult, intentional work of maintaining contact with one’s neighbors and trying to provide what people need. In one story a game warden takes care to check in on his newly widowed neighbor. In “You Four Are the One,” narrator Lanie and three of her friends spend the summer before starting sixth grade helping Lanie’s pregnant neighbor, Cinta Johns, who is on strict bedrest following the four miscarriages in seven years that she’s already been through. While Cinta’s husband is at work at the mill, the girls hold her hand, walk her dog, make her tea, paint her toenails, and mostly take her mind off the mounting pressure to make sure she’s able to carry the pregnancy to term. Lanie’s mother is the one who sends the girls over at first, but Lanie soon finds meaning in the work as well. “At Cinta Johns’s house we weren’t four flat-chested nerdy girls in one-pieces,” she emphasizes. “We were a part of her Support Team.”
McIlwain is no Pollyanna, though, and Sidle Creek includes stories of community failure and violence a well. In “Where Lottie Lived,” the titular Lottie lets her house, the site of horrors from her childhood, crumble around her even as neighbors come sniffing around about buying the property. In “Eminent Domain,” a woman recognizes she will have to leave if she wants to “be anything that ain’t a few steps away from crazy.” In the background of many of the stories are hints of broader issues within the region — mines closing, workplace injuries, a lack of easily accessible medical care — but these realities aren’t at the center of characters’ lives.
Instead, Sidle Creek‘s stories largely focus on people who are making their lives where they were born and raised, as well as some who have come from away — and the small and large dramas of their lives are rendered in beautiful prose.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother’s Lovers.