In her new book, part-time Southwest Harbor resident Gigi Georges explores Washington County from a quintet of perspectives, giving voice to five young rural women over the course of four turbulent years, as they struggle with poverty, ambition, tradition and faith.

Georges has taught at Boston College and served as program director for the Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Innovation Strategies Initiative. She worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton as a special assistant to the president and senior counselor to the National Economics Council. She moved to Maine about 15 years ago with her husband.

Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” is Georges’ first full-length work of non-fiction. It’s a well-researched and compelling exploration of a community struggling to maintain what makes it special.

Georges writes: “‘Downeast’ unlocks the life stories of . . . five girls, who, as they come of age, are caught between tradition and transformation in Washington County – and follows their journey in this time of uncertainty. All five know the pain and joy of growing up in a region whose natural beauty and cultural stoicism mask mounting tensions around place, family, faith and future.”

She chooses as her subjects five girls of relatively diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, students or recent graduates of Narraguagus High in Harrington. She uses pseudonyms for all, although at least three have come forward since the book was published last May. Georges follows the girls to church, to basketball championships, to the deck of a lobster boat. She notes the girls’ experiences with their parents and grandparents, their boyfriends and best friends. Her reporting feels comprehensive without being intrusive, honest without being sensational.

At the time of Georges’ reporting, Willow lives with a drug-addicted father but finds joy in her pursuit of mastering photography. Vivian is a gifted writer who feels stifled by her hometown, yet doesn’t want to sever ties completely after graduation. Josie earns admission to Yale but isn’t prepared for the ambivalence she feels at being accepted into the Ivy League. Audrey, the high school basketball star, receives a generous scholarship to Bates College and goes on to study speech and language pathology. A lobstering prodigy, Mckenna captains her own boat by the time she’s 17 and dreams of owning a whole fleet.

Georges makes clear exactly how difficult it can be to live in far Northeast Maine. Drug addiction plays havoc in the area. “Between 2016 and 2018 Washington County had, by far, the highest rate of drug overdoses of any county in Maine,” she notes. None of the “Downeast” women say they use hard drugs, but Willow’s family is hit particularly hard by her father’s opiate abuse.

Georges gained the trust of these girls and elicits from them tales of growing up amid poverty and plenty. For some, their lives proceed as expected; others are thrown curveballs that could not be foreseen. They talk openly about religion and politics, questioning beliefs they’ve held throughout childhood and into adolescence.

Vivian, outwardly one of the most popular students, lets her dad and step-mother believe that she has her life together, but at age 14 she is spending her afternoons drinking and smoking pot. She is best friends with Willow, who having a stable living situation for the first time, has no desire to follow Vivian’s lead into substance use.

At Yale, Josie finds herself suddenly surrounded by students with differing political beliefs, most morel liberal than hers. “I grew up in an area with a lot of nice Republicans,” Georges quotes her as saying. “They’re not evil. They just have different ideas.”

Audrey and Mckenna apply themselves to athletics and lobstering. Audrey’s fiancé Jack trains to be a firefighter, and the couple plan their careers as they achieve “local success.”

Georges writes about Audrey’s intention to stay rooted in familiar territory. “Choices like hers are as valuable as gold to rural communities like those Downeast. They kindle optimism for the future.”

The later chapters address the impact COVID-19 placed on Washington County. At first, the virus was slow to spread to rural America, but by January 2020, the global wholesale price of lobster was in free-fall. Lobster is seen as an item for a special occasion, and when the pandemic hit, no one would be in the mood to celebrate. In Washington County alone, losing a lobstering season would amount to an $80 million hit.

By the end of the book, the young women have built productive lives for themselves, pursuing their dreams with amazing stamina and grit. “Downeast” is a celebration of hard work rewarded and family connections cherished. It is not in any way saccharine, but it is a welcome dose of positivity in a troubled time.

Georges suggests her subjects will forever be connected to the locations of their youth. “But even if they do not end up in the Downeast of their growing years, they will always be of it,” she writes. “Its robust heart will beat within them.”

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: mlberry


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