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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For a blog focused on the idea of place in all the stories we tell, I can’t think of a better person to talk to today. I met author and professor, Matthew Ferrence, at a writers conference in the spring, where I picked up his memoir, Appalachia North — the first book-length treatment of the cultural position of Northern Appalachia.
Matthew and I are from similar places. But more than a book of essays exploring geology and place, Appalachia North is a very personal memoir that allows the reader to journey alongside the writer as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. From the book jacket:
Appalachia North is an investigation of how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written, and also a reckoning with how a body always in recovery can, like a region viewed always as a site of extraction, find new territories of growth.
Matthew, how did you come to write this book?
I wrote through a somewhat circuitous path for Appalachia North. The project began with a rejection, for a collection of essays I’d been working on for some time. But that opened up a conversation with Andrew Berzanskis, who was then editor-at-large for WVU Press (he’s now a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington Press), and a contract to write a book about northern Appalachia. While we both knew this was to take the form of a memoir, what we didn’t know is that I was going to be banging on the keys and finding some dreadful resistance. I’d recently finished treatments for my brain tumor, and I wrote an essay called “The Foxes of Prince Edward Island,” which was all about that. And I knew that I really wanted to write about recovery and brains and foxes.
So, one day I just decided that I’d do both, and see what happened if I tried to simultaneously write the book I had a contract for, and the book that was gnawing at me, somehow as one book. With that, the writing started to open up, and I began to see the connections between geography and self, between recovered bodies and recovered regions, of how erosion could function as a reframing metaphor of beauty and hope. Then, draft done, I had to tell Andrew. Who, much to his credit, looked at this new book he hadn’t bargained for, saw what it could be, pushed me to revise toward directions I’d neglected, and Appalachia North came into form.
I love the idea of mapping — both of your native geography and (the native geography) of your body. Could you describe the process by which you came to “see” the terrain of your journey enough to write it?
Mapping as a literal act came with the earliest versions of the book, that I would seek out the corners of the official parts of Appalachia north of the Mason Dixon line, to sort of survey and consider the delineations. As I did that, I was surprised by the recurring mutability of the lines that seem so permanent on an actual map. Most of all, I was struck by how the three counties of northeastern Ohio included in the official Appalachian Regional Commission map were late entries, “becoming” Appalachia forty-some years after the ARC put out its first map. So I became preoccupied with thinking about ways that map lines just don’t work. That connected with my figurative sense of self as an Appalachian exiled by birth, simply by the fate of being from Pennsylvania instead of the parts that usually count as Appalachia. This has bugged me for a long time.
For the body, I experienced the way clinical treatment exiles a person from a sense of self, because your body becomes defined by blood test numbers, and MRI scans, and radiation beam coordinates. Your sense of self becomes a cartography of medical rationality, and that makes you feel, well, not yourself really. You get lost the more you’re mapped. Somewhere in that irony, you start to get a sense that you’re tired of letting other people draw the maps.
In your essay, “Conduits,” you discuss those who make geographical maps — generally, those people in power. By writing about place, you do feel you’re map-making? Do you see this as a way to wrest some control over your native place?
For sure. Like, just the other day, a colleague was saying they didn’t really agree with my “claims” that Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia, because they spent a lot of time in “real” Appalachia in the North Carolina mountains. I was sort of stunned, frankly, because even the official maps back me up on this one! But at the same time, this is the tyranny of cartography: that people can draw lines for whatever reason they want. Money. Politics. Taxes. On and on. And there was some weird power exercised here in this very moment, about who gets to actually lay claim to the definition of a region…and in this case, as is often the case, the person making the definitive claim was not from the region and “correcting” someone from the region. We don’t even get to draw maps of our own places.
Yet the terrain — I love that word! — just doesn’t care. Trees grow. Dirt erodes. Mountains emerge. When you’re walking in the woods on many borders so clear on a map, you really can’t tell where the line is, since terrain is fluid. Really, there is no line. So in looking around at places on the ground where the lines are supposed to be, I started thinking a lot about all the lines that people try to place on our lives: healthy and not, for one, or legit Appalachian or not. Maybe because I’m on the “wrong” side of both of those lines, I became determined to refuse the lines altogether.
You challenge the conventions of regional dialect in one of your essays. As in, we’re supposed to say “Appalachia” a certain way — to prove we’re an insider in the region. Why this struggle for Appalachian authenticity, do you think? Why does it remain a region so intent on staying true to its roots? What does it mean for you?
I get the hard and fast claims for rightness in saying App-uh-latch-a, because lots of people have been made to feel small and unimportant for being themselves. Authenticity — including accent — becomes a way to fight for your own sense of worth. So on one hand I totally root for that, and I kind of relish the way Appalachians can smack down the folks who don’t know anything about the region. But at the same time, well, I don’t want to be kicked out of where I’m from. That’s the trouble of the northern part, for sure. We can feel sort of absent. Another one of my pet peeves: all sorts of people (again, who are not from here) keep telling me this is the Midwest. And I’m always thinking, fuck off on your Midwest. They’ll make some claim about jello salads or politeness, but it all comes with this sense of diminishment. Because they usually mean this in the context of explaining either how they’re from more sophisticated spaces not the Midwest, or as a way to deepen their disdain for northern Appalachia by refusing to even acknowledge it as being a place with its own claim to regionality.
I want to be clear, I don’t mean this to disparage the Midwest, but very much to defend how places like it, and like Appalachia, have to stick up for themselves as legitimate locales, as distinctive and meaningful, because everyone basically says over and over, fly-over country. So, on pronunciations, I love the variance of Appalachia, which has a whole spectrum of pronunciations, which is another way of saying it’s a place of vibrancy and nuance. I’m not going to give away my corner of that, so I’ve become comfortable using both the soft and hard vowels, but will still totally make fun of someone from outside the region who pronounces it wrong. The nice thing is, I can make fun of them no matter what they say. Cruel, I suppose.
In your memoir’s preface, you say, “So many writers…seek to make a declaration: this is what a place is.” You, like a good essayist, seem to be happier delving into the ambiguities of place. You also seek to reclaim your native place for the next generation — your own kids among them. How do you do this without defining that place?
Yes! This is what we love, I think, ambiguity and gray edges and journeys. I say this a bit cheekily: essayists love to squirm away from anything declarative, relish the provisional, even as we love to make big claims…which we then overturn and twist and turn inside out. On the matter of place, the big thing to me is that it matters, but when a place seems to carry rigid definitions — Trump Country, Red States, Fly-Over, all that — such restrictions wind up wrecking a place. That’s when we become totemic monoliths or, really, tools. So, for me and for my kids, I long for a vibrant connection to terrain and geography, with a sense that what a place means can also evolve and contradict and carry the fluidity the essayist loves. I want my kids to love a place, but I want them to be able to live in it with a sense of reciprocal love. I’m frustrated and angry, these days, by how places redouble their restrictive sense of who counts, who looks or loves or behaves the “right” way. That’s the wreckage of definition, as it crushes back to stereotype and turfiness and xenophobia and trope. Ambiguity, I think, invites inclusion and expansiveness. Because we can’t say this instead of that.
The language of geography and of the body — especially around medicine — can get really technical; yet, you do a lovely job of softening both of these languages. Instead of unapproachable moments of medical jargon, you note the moments of “mercy” between you and our doctors. You call it: “The precise language of medicine facing off against my growing recognition of life.” Yet, as a writer, language is your tool. Did it ever feel useless? Did you ever think, I don’t know how to write about what’s happening to my body in my language?
The veer to the metaphorical helps, for me at least. The peripheral look, the askance view, the detailed description of some concrete object that suddenly emerges with a new dimension of meaning, well for me, that’s how language becomes the only way to make sense of the ineffable. The biggest example is my recognition of the geology of my home, that it’s a dissected plateau instead of a worn out mountain. My Dad filled me in on that, part way through the writing, and it was a literal geological process that changed everything for me, metaphorically. Suddenly, I could see the post-surgical me in a different way, not as something grand that is now worn out and wrecked, but something shaping into a new form that can carry its own beauty. The metaphor was everything. On the flip side, cliché strikes me as the enemy of health writing, because it’s almost all you get from people when you’re ill. Directness felt better, on the page, that this happened and that happened. Combining the direct with the cascading metaphors helped me use language very much as the tool for narrative recovery.
In your essay, “The Molt,” you compare your emotional state, traversing your medical condition, to molting, as an animal does. Through your sickness you waited for “the hardening,” for a new shell, as it were, to help you bear up. Yet, the best writing, I believe, comes from exploring those times before the hardening, don’t you think?
I agree. Totally! I guess the hardening is the lived desire, that you just want things to stop being difficult, to end, maybe to stop feeling, at least for a little bit. Because things are so difficult. But, no, the hardening is a false desire, because actually developing it would be catastrophic. Maybe the essayist’s stance is to write about the moments when hardening fails and, more so, to write as an act of resisting hardening. Writing softens us up, so we can actually find the substance.
What’s your favorite thing to teach students in your college courses — about nonfiction writing and about Appalachian Studies?
About Appalachia, it’s pretty much always a combo of you’re in it and you are it. Up here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there aren’t a lot of people who actively think about themselves as Appalachians, nor who have had any reason to think deeply about the region. Yet close to half of our students are from places that are literally in Appalachia. I love the immediate shake-up that provides, which I shared. First you think, that can’t be right. Then something like, but I’m not… And then, …but wait I am. So what we all think about Appalachia is…not accurate!
That moment of recognition and depth is what I love most about nonfiction itself, that we find new avenues constantly, so long as we cultivate a practice of curiosity and attention.
I love helping students unlock the potential in two disparate personal narratives, or figuring out how oblique research can deepen a complicated narrative line. Most of all, I love getting to spend time with a group of students all committed to the deep reflection of the world we walk around in. And language. Maybe this is really the best part: helping students understand the power of the lyric sentence, how the gestures of poetry and art, applied to real experience, yield the best nonfiction.
In thinking about your take on place, I learned that you’re taking a run at the PA House in 2020. In what ways did your writing get you to this decision?
Without a doubt, part of the motivation stems from writing books that have allowed me to dive deeply into how my home turf has been used and exploited by politics. That’s part of the framing of my candidacy, in fact, that there are stories that we tell ourselves over and over again that never turn out well for us. So let’s write new ones. The incumbent, as well, has not been, shall we say, a friend of the arts during his decade-and-a-half in office. My rallying cry, I suppose, came from his remarks suggesting that the state shouldn’t give student aid to people majoring in “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” Well now. Hmmm. That didn’t sit with me. Even if we want to stay in the spheres of practicality and economic policy, the arts sector is huge, and can have a tremendously positive impact on rural areas like ours. And at the same time, I long for a politics that doesn’t limit its vision to the spreadsheet. Politics is about people, in fact is the people. We talk about vision in politics, but we rarely see candidates who want to run on creativity and possibility.
I’d say the brain tumor factors in here, too: for one thing, I saw first hand what it means to get sick and suddenly see how expensive staying alive is. I was lucky, because of my insurance. Many other people would be bankrupt now, if they’d faced what I did. That’s not right. Then, existentially, I’m tired of living in a world attenuated by the small-minded nightmares of regressive politicians. Part of the after-effect of having a brain tumor is the relative ease at which I find myself saying, fuck it, and doing the thing that matters to me that’s the sort of thing we all have a tendency to be afraid to undertake. Running for office is that. I refuse to leave Appalachia to the troglodytes. The national narrative tells us that’s who we all are, and we most definitely are not. I want to stand up and write it differently.
What’s next for your writing? What should readers look out for?
I have two projects I’m wrestling with right now, each in very early stages. One is fiction, which is taking shape as either a novel or a collection of linked stories. Appalachian. Eco-futurist. Focusing on the possible presence of magical creatures in nighttimes threatened by a radical growth in light pollution. The other is an essay project, more or less the writing of a Catholic Mass, to address the ways I am simultaneously deeply lapsed from the Church yet unable to shake the feeling of mystical deep spirituality I find within it. In both projects, I’m trying to find a way to toggle toward radical beauty, to write of dark things but with gratitude and joy. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s work in both poetry and nonfiction here, and how moving I find his devotion to that serious artistic stance. More and more, I find myself wanting to write toward hope and goodness, particularly as the world churning around us seems to only call us to critique, which is vital, but also wearying. Art helps us imagine new futures, and I long to imagine my way toward hopeful ones even when most of what we see suggests dystopia as our fate. Maybe we can write a better future into being.
Matthew Ferrence lives and writes at the confluence of Appalachia. He is the author of Appalachia North: a memoir and All-American Redneck, a well as numerous essays published in North American literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Allegheny College and in 2020 is vying for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing Crawford and Erie Counties.
Here at Rust Belt Girl, I’m thrilled to connect with other writers who explore America’s post-industrial heartland, the Rust Belt, and find that its rich history is still being discovered. Paul Hertneky and I share no relation except for a love of these hardscrabble places and for representing the voices of these places truthfully. For more than twenty-six years, Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, NBC News, and many more outlets. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood is his memoir.
“Rust Belt Boy brings to life in loving, lyric detail an essential but over-looked portrait of America’s blue collar heart,” writes National Book Award Finalist, Sy Montgomery. [It] illuminates moments that change our lives and the small recurrences that shape our decisions. In a millworker’s milieu—seldom seen by outsiders, filled with soot, solvents, and sharp edges—we encounter the work ethic of immigrants, then as now. These pages explore the push-and-pull of family and a hometown, the gravity—nearby or at a distance—that keeps us in orbit around our roots. (Book jacket copy)
Paul—Rust Belt Boy is an exploration of your roots, your personal history and the history of your hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. In the writing of this memoir, what was the most surprising thing you learned about your native place?
That honor goes to the Harmonists. By most people’s reckoning [the Christian separatist society—a celibate “utopia”—founded in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s] was the most financially successful community of the time, probably anywhere. To have three stanzas devoted to the society in Lord Byron’s Don Juan; to be a subject of discussion between Marx and Engels; to have more money at the time under the bed of the founder than in the U.S. treasury. What a force these people were. How we ignored it! That might be the biggest surprise: the fact that we were not entirely cognizant of where we were.
The question is: does our writing in some way put people in touch with their past? That’s the role we can play. That was maybe most surprising. This place was far more pivotal in American history than we knew. It points out how little attention we paid to the past—that distance between the immigrant experience of the here and now and the heritage of where we were.
Ah, America. Rags to riches. Dream fulfilled country, right?
Without spoiling too terribly much, this is not that book. This is not romance.
American Lit. nerd time-out: in his Criticism and Fiction, realist writer of the 1800s, William Dean Howells, argued that a story where “all grows naturally out of character and conditions is the supreme form of fiction.” Down with the sentimentality of romantic fiction! Realism was best suited to express the spirit of America. Then, real got real-er, and naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser and Jack London showed what happens when natural forces overwhelm us silly humans.
American Rust is real-natural in that way. And I like it. Realism has always appealed to this Rust Belt native for whom romantic lit. often feels at best, false, and at worst, dangerous.
For me, this debut novel’s strengths are in the real and natural way Philipp Meyer’s dark story grows out of the ruinous conditions of its modern Appalachian Pennsylvania setting: post-industry, post steel money, post employment, though still (or again) naturally beautiful.
This is a story of two very different young men from the same place. Isaac is small, awkward, and MIT-smart; Billy is handsome and strong, a former high school football star. One night, the friends get caught up in/perpetrate an act of terrible violence, just as restless Isaac has decided he must head to Stanford to put his genius to work. Post-crime, Isaac makes good on his promise to leave their hometown, and Billy stays. Each man suffers for his decision, Isaac on the road and in train yards where lawlessness reigns, and Billy in prison. The men’s families become entangled in the tragedy, as does the local police chief, Harris, who must weigh his job as a lawman against his love for Billy’s mother, Grace. All suffer in the aftermath of one violent mistake.