Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.

Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance.  The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:

Can you really go home again?

Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.

The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.

Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.

The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.

The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”

The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.

I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.

That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?

I’ll let you read to find out.

In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com

Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:

Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…

From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points

Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.

~~~

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.

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19 thoughts on “A Distance Not Too Far to Fathom: My review of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS

  1. Rebecca, I am buying the book today!! I’m not a rust belt gal, but St. Louis has its share of rural, “left behind” towns, and my son now lives in Pittsburgh 😎. The whole idea of going home again—what is left there without our parents, and the family that sheltered us? Can you really go home again? I am intrigued.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cynthia–I’ll be delighted to hear what you think of the novel. Please let me know! I’ve been to St. Louis, so I know that area has its share of left-behind places. The decline of industry hit so many U.S. cities hard. Pittsburgh has made a nice comeback–and as a Cleveland native, I should be slapping my hand in saying that, ha! As for going back “home,” though my mom is deceased and my dad no longer lives in NE Ohio, I took my boys back there, last summer. It was nice to see my childhood home through their eyes, my town, my old parish (it was a contemporary Mass, and one of my boys said, “Is this a baptist church?”). Strange that my boys won’t think of Ohio, but Maryland, as home–but then they’ve got to form their own idea of what that means to them. Never thought I’d be what I call “East Coast-y,” but I suppose I am a bit after living so long here. Thank you for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review – I’m fascinated by the concept of returning to a dying community – we have so many right now in our country, because the world seems to have passed so many areas by…thanks for bringing this to our attention!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading, John. I often romanticize the idea of returning to an old Rust Belt town–one with good bones (and mansions ripe for renovation left behind by steel barons!). I think you’d be interested to read Margo Orlando Littell’s essay about becoming a landlord in her hometown during the writing of her book–not a happy experience–over at John Scalzi’s blog: https://whatever.scalzi.com/2020/05/28/the-big-idea-margo-orlando-littell/

      Unemployment is the tough nut to crack in these places. Maybe a consequence of the pandemic, with so many of us in big city metro areas working from home, will be that employers realize remote work, works. And employees can live where they want to, even in small towns and rural areas that industry and jobs have left fallow. We’ll see!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love seemingly ordinary stories and settings. I enjoy works that pull back the curtain, and I didn’t expect this to be about rentals (obviously I know it’s more), but that’s an interesting subculture now, isn’t it? Great write up. You’ve piqued my interest 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s a great point–rentals being a subculture and with this economic downturn, I expect it will only grow. I love to learn about others’ lives and work in fiction, which is why I rarely want to read about writers or writing teachers. I can’t remember the last novel I read with landlords and their renters–and all that drama. Orlando Littell handled that really well. All of those HGTV shows I love to watch focus on the before and after of renovations, but there’s a whole lot of human angst in there too. Thanks so much for reading my review!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do love a good makeover show as well, but yes, anything behind the scenes like Kitchen Confidential or that slightly different point of view (The Other Boleyn Girl) grab my interest and the wide wide world of rentals has got to be included now!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I adore how your first paragraph in your review grabs my attention and then you kept me interested all the way through to the last one. As a landlord, I think I should read this book to see if I’ve missed any insights that she gained. I’m reading another Michael Perry book – Visiting Tom A Man, A Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace. I’m like you, I enjoy reading books written by authors that live in the area where we live, it is fun and entertaining and enlightening. I hope your summer is going well. I love seeing the smiles on the boys’ faces in your photos on Instagram!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shelley–the boys and I are managing to have a nice summer (outside and socially distanced, of course). I’m also getting anxious to know what the fall will bring, as far as school. I’m glad you liked my review. Reviews, I find, are not easy to write. I try to make them as entertaining as possible! The whole landlording premise is interesting, and something I don’t read much about in fiction. Landlords face a lot of decisions that can really impact an entire community. Do you make a place just livable, or provide some luxuries, or fully renovate a place so that you must charge an amount of rent no one who lived in that area before could afford? Living near D.C., we hear a lot about old neighborhoods gentrifying, but these things don’t happen all at once, but, really, one landlord (and developer, of course) at a time. You’re among the good landlord variety, Shelley, I know that! I saw you’re into another Perry book. Looks like great hammock reading. I hope you’re having good weather for it–we’re sweltering here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. From my perspective, you make it look easy to write reviews. You have a knack for highlighting parts of the book just enough to make me want to read it, and not too much to give it away.
        Yeah, landlords do make a lot of decisions. We could write a book … LOL. We do base our rents on the comps in the area and renovations are based upon the thinking of “would we live here or let our kids live here or not?” – rarely do we go for perfection because, well, the first time someone who appears to be well-kept trashes a place, it helps the landlord get over perfection.
        We’ve been experiencing sweltering heat here too. Storms have gone through now and the temps are more tolerable. I’ll hopefully put the book aside and spend some social distancing time with our daughters who are stopping by to say “Hi” this weekend.
        Have fun with the boys. PS. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the experts who are recommending the kids get back to school are listened to and that the kids do go back on schedule! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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