SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Gigi Georges wanted to tell a story about rural America. She found one when five girls from the Downeast region showed her hope, resilience and the value of community.
In her recently published book, “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America,” Georges, a part-time Southwest Harbor resident and former White House special assistant to the president, follows five girls as they transition from teenagers to young women. On Tuesday, Aug. 17, she is scheduled to speak at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor at 7 p.m. about the book and her process in writing it.
Georges always knew she wanted to write a book. Growing up in the city, in a large Greek immigrant family, and working on urban issues for much of her career, Georges was looking for a new frontier. Drawing from four years of interviews and research with five Washington County teens, Georges brings readers of “Downeast” into one of the most rural and underserved communities in Maine.
“We have heard over and over again in recent years in the media and in other portrayals of rural America a dominant downbeat narrative,” said Georges in a conversation with the Islander. “Of rural America as a place of hopelessness and despair. I felt, having now started to raise our daughter in New Hampshire and in Maine, that there was something more to that narrative. That it wasn’t all about hopelessness and despair. I believed that there was a more optimistic story, and my theory was proven true over and over again.”
In order to find the subjects of her tale, Georges asked former Seacoast Mission Rev. Scott Planting for some guidance.
“He said, ‘Get in your car and go an hour up the road. I think you’ll be surprised at what you see.’”
She landed at Narraguagus Junior Senior High School in Harrington, a town with a population of about 1,000 at the time of the 2010 census. There she met with several students before choosing the five girls to feature.
“The girls were excelling and, in many ways, surpassing the boys,” said Georges. “When I sat with these kids, I saw a lot of things going on. They were really rooted to place.”
That place, a community built upon generations of lobster fishing and blueberry cultivation, and most recently affected by the opioid crisis, is brought to life through Georges’s colorful language and observations perceived more keenly by one raised in urban America.
“What I found is there is a community interconnectedness, neighbors helping neighbors,” said George, who has been interviewed about the book on national publication formats, in one instance by her former employer, Hilary Rodham Clinton. “There is tremendous social capital – whether it’s through nonprofits and dedicated teachers…that is one aspect of the story that ought to be told.”
Because of the small, intimate nature of the community, the names of all five of the girls, as well as those in their family, have been changed. One of the girls’ stories is a tough one, Georges explained.
“I granted anonymity to her right from the start,” she added. “They were amazing from the start. I just wanted to give them room to trust me. We started very slowly. I wanted to allow them to tell their stories on their own time and in their own way.”
To do so, Georges spent time hauling traps on one of the girl’s fishing boat. Another girl’s family is involved in the blueberry industry and Georges spent time in the blueberry barrens. They invited her into their homes, their churches, to basketball games and community events.
“I spent a tremendous amount of time with each over four years,” she said, adding that each of them has embraced the book being published in their own way. “Three of them have revealed their actual names and have done their own media events.”
All of the young women have or are attending college and are in the process of deciding what they will do next as they begin their adult lives.
“For some young women and men, the right path is to leave, and some want to return, and we ought to celebrate that decision as well,” said Georges, pointing out that both take courage and strength. “There’s a recognition that men and women stand side by side as equals in rural Maine.”
There were three main lessons Georges took away from her experience delving into a rural Maine community. One, there is a broader story to rural America.
“There are big challenges but there is much to celebrate,” she said.
The second lesson she learned was that young women in small towns have an important role to play and a voice to be heard.
“They are resilient. They face their challenges head on. They are not victims,” she pointed out.
And the third lesson for Georges was how to instill those characteristics somehow into her own daughter. Yet, she also can see that much of their character development comes from being from Washington County and small communities that join together to endure the struggles and capitalize on the moments to celebrate.
“This is not a one-dimensional story,” said Georges. “We need to understand the degree of adversity that exists… That connection to nature is so strong and so sustaining.”