by Jody DiPerna
Kittanning author’s new story collection simmers with country community, pain and perseverance
Jolene McIlwain was an outside kid; she was always out of doors, getting dirty and wet in the high grass, roaming the power cuts, hills and creeks of western Pennsylvania. Her storytelling springs from being in these places and creating enough space to observe birdsong, hear the aria of the wind and the whisper of leaves.
She spent much of her career teaching at Duquesne and Chatham, driving Route 28 back and forth between Kittanning, the place where she grew up and remained as an adult, so that she could step out her door and into the silence. She retired from university teaching and spends her days writing, editing, working on a small online journal called JMWW, but also just being in the open air — rain and shine and the gray days this area is famous for.
The stories collected in “Sidle Creek,” to be released on May 16th by Melville House Press, occupy these small town spaces. These are stories born of a mind set loose in quiet that is often drowned out by the clatter of modernity. This analog meandering permits McIlWain to make connections between seemingly unrelated things — Cooper’s hawks and Hooters, Jon Benet Ramsey and cockfighting, birdshells and PTSD.
“I think as writers, we have an opportunity to not just look at the people who make sense to us, but to look at the people who just puzzle us and completely baffle us,” McIlWain said of opening up these characters who hunt and fish and garden, take care of neighbors, support local businesses, and sometimes seek retribution and commit crimes.
In, “Those Red Boots,” a young woman in a turnpike town goes missing. She works at a restaurant popular with locals and outsiders who find their way there as they drive the Pennsylvania turnpike. The presumed crime sets the townsfolk against the temporary road workers and other outsiders, while the owner of the restaurant begins questioning his own complicity. He wonders, for the first time really, if the provocative clothing and custom red boots which make up the work uniform put these women in danger.
“The problem is — it doesn’t matter how you dress — there’s always a power dynamic,” McIlWain said. But in writing it, she was thinking about how easy it is for groups to turn against each other.
“It’s that volatile. I definitely realized, this isn’t a simple prey predator story. This is a story about multiple predators and multiple prey.”
The 22 stories are not connected, except when they are; some characters are referenced in other stories, but more often, they link thematically and converse in that way. There are a number of stories which deal with women’s health — women’s reproductive health, specifically. For that, McIlwain was able to draw on her own life experience of living with endometriosis, which went undiagnosed for more than 15 years, and a pregnancy that required strict bedrest for months.
“You Four Are the One” revolves around a community caring for a woman who is going through a tenuous, delicate pregnancy. And in the title story, “Sidle Creek,” we meet Esme, a young woman raised by her single dad. He teaches her how to fish, what bait to use and how to still yourself for the best fishing. Together, they gather flat rocks from Sidle Creek to build a wall. He’s a “rub some dirt in it” kind of dad — one who guts a trout with the same affect that he might dry a coffee mug. But he also does everything he can to support his daughter as she suffers with undiagnosed endometriosis.
“He’s not a perfect father, but he’s good enough,” McIlwain said. “He’s still a gruff guy and there is a stereotype of a rural man or small town guy, but he rises to the occasion. He finds someone who can help her despite the fact that the medical system has failed us.”
McIlWain pushes against all kinds of stereotypes, both of hard men and women in need of fainting couches. In less sure hands, these women might be dismissed as hysterical or, as the saying goes, it’s all in their heads.
“None of those women are weak women. None of those women are either physically weak or are mentally weak,” McIlWain said.
“Loosed,” one of the most difficult stories in this collection, revolves around a man who runs a cockfighting ring, then turns that into a dogfighting ring and then goes to even worse places from there. (Yes, worse even than dogfighting.)
“I think it’s our job to go where it’s uncomfortable and see if you can find any understanding or empathy. There are people out there that deal in blood sports — why did they do it?” McIlWain said.
Not that she’s giving this character a pass. Or even that she forgives this creation of hers. She does, however, give him fullness and humanity in pushing through even as the writing of this tale haunted her.
“It was really uncomfortable,” she said. “It made me see how class and poverty and the need to be seen can just send someone in a horrifying direction.”
One of the gentler, but no less gripping tales, is the story of a man who finds his way to his dead wife by being out in the woods she loved. In “The Fractal Geometry of Grief,” Hube begins to notice the woods the way that she did. He counts the deer and forest voles, catalogs the tree, pays attention to the variations in bark, and it transforms his grief. It puts him in conversation with his wife.
There are ways that watching the life of insects and small game, watching the seasonal cycle of life and death in the woods is a constant “underlying reminder of how close we are to our own deaths,” McIlWain said. “Even just being a gardener, you’re constantly faced with the potential of something dying on you.”
She was also thinking about the complex men in her life. Men like her brother, who she described as an “all-American hunter.”
“He goes hunting all the time. He was also one of the caregivers for my father. I would watch my brother bathe my dad, carry him — be the best possible kind of nurturing soul you could ever be. And this is a person who I watched slaughter the deer,” she said.
There are stories of the ways in which we care for one another. There is a family who adapts to one of the men in their family who suffered PTSD as a soldier in Vietnam without pathologizing him. They accept his needs as they would anybody else’s. There is a couple, also traumatized by war, who find peace in reading the signs and portents in bird’s nests and eggshells. And there are stories of people who quietly, and without discussion, do transgressive things to correct injustices.
By writing with grit and discipline, McIlWain finds her way into all the characters — some luckless, some lost, some harsh and hard — by making them all complicated people trying to make their way in the world.
She said, “It was more than just writing stories. It was quite a lot about taking a closer look at all the people I grew up around.”
Jolene McIlWain will read at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley on Tuesday, May 16 at 7:00 pm.
Read three of the stories from “Sidle Creek” here.