The genesis of the PBS film Moundsville and its companion blog Moundsville.org, about a classic American postindustrial town, was a mid-life crisis mixed with the 2016 election and a curiosity about the truth of Rust Belt communities.
Six years ago, I was on staff at the Wall Street Journal, covering mining and the steel industry out of its Pittsburgh bureau.
Like everybody else, I watched as the Trump-Clinton presidential election blew anger, confusion, and fear through the culture.
Personally, I was going through my own crisis. I was about to turn 40, and experiencing mid-life’s deepening cravings for meaning and direction. That second mountain beckoned.
After 13 years roaming the world for one of the world’s great newspapers, I simply wasn’t enjoying it anymore. So I quit, and started climbing. After some discernment, I decided to stay in Pittsburgh.
Poking around for creative projects, I started driving to Moundsville, a small town in West Virginia on the Ohio River 75 minutes from Pittsburgh. In 2013, I’d reported on it for the Journal.
The town fascinated me. I grew up in Belgium, the child of American musicians who’d wandered around Europe in 1976 and dropped an anchor in Brussels. I’m fascinated by places in America that tell a deeper story about my ancestral homeland.
In late 2017, I connected with filmmaker Dave Bernabo. We put together a proposal to tell the story of Moundsville in a documentary. I thought that town was a perfect place to tell a deeper story about America because it’s built around a 2,200-year old Native American burial mound, it harbored a glorious industrial age including the world’s biggest toy factory (Marx Toys, maker of Rock’em Sock’em Robots!), and it now subsists on a service-based economy anchored by a Walmart. There’s also a lot of pain and grief in Moundsville. In a generation, the town lost 8,000 jobs. The population halved. Young people left for Pittsburgh and New York.
David and I spent most of 2018 driving down to Moundsville and interviewing people. At the end of each interview, we’d ask a question about Trump and national politics. Almost always, the answers lacked depth. It dawned on me: These people didn’t know about Trump. They didn’t live in DC. They weren’t very thoughtful about politics. But when we asked them about their work lives and their parents’ work lives, they engaged with depth and wisdom. Those questions, I realized, were actually loving. Almost always, I decided, asking about Trump simply wasn’t loving.
After experimenting with a voiceover, we opted to tell the story without a so-called “voice of God” as narrator. The movie is an oral history, without any academics or outside experts.
In our interviews, we heard about grief a lot, but we also heard and told tales of resilience, from a back-to-the-land farming couple, a small manufacturer of kitchen cabinets, and the leaders of a burgeoning tourism sector. The ancient burial mound looming above the town is a daily reminder that civilizations ebb and flow, and that time moves only forward. My hope is that we acknowledged grief in a healing way while pointing the way forward with stories of hope and perseverance.
In December 2018, we premiered Moundsville in the town itself, a practice of sharing work that anthropologists recommend. Over 170 people showed up. A few grumbled about our portrayal of segregation in the film, but at the end, we received an ovation.
A month later, we screened at America, the Jesuit magazine I had started writing for, in New York City, on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan across the street from News Corp., home of the Wall Street Journal.
To my surprise–and gratitude–the movie holds up. People appreciate its openness and listening attitude. “This amazing project reflects a diversity of stories that I needed to experience to remind me of hope and resilience and kindness,” wrote Anupama Jain, head of a Pittsburgh diversity training group, on Twitter.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned making and showing Moundsville is that every place carries an organic placeness that deserves respect for its uniqueness. You can find wisdom and thoughtfulness in people when you engage them over that place and recognize its differences from your place. We can’t love our neighbors as brothers and sisters if we expect them to be just like us.
I created the Moundsville.org site to promote the film, but quickly found an audience for pieces I was posting. It gets an average of 10,000 readers a month. So I keep writing and posting. I’ve written over 100 pieces for the blog, on everything from Lady Gaga’s mom, who grew up in Moundsville, to people going to watch baseball inside the prison in the 1950s.
I’m still on a journey of figuring out a new kind of journalism that suits my skills, and my heart. I’ve co-directed Out of Reach, a new movie about the American Dream. I’m developing a podcast called Philosophy with Strangers, where I go with an older friend to small towns and ask big questions. First episode: We went to Charleroi, PA and asked people: What is happiness? I contribute regularly to America, a monthly magazine run by Jesuits. I coach baseball. Lots of other stuff, too. But wherever my career takes me, it was forever changed by the road that ran through Moundsville, West Virginia.
John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and filmmaker, and co-director of the PBS film Moundsville.
What are you watching, reading, and writing this month. Let me know in the comments…
Are you a Rust Belt writer? What’s your story? Would you care to share? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.
Rebecca here–and absolutely thrilled to present this guest post featuring the poetry of Moundsville, West Virginia native, poet and professor Carrie Conners. All three poems shared here explore Rust Belt themes and can be found in Carrie’s latest collection, titled Species of Least Concern. Please read, share, and join in the conversation in the comments.
Carrie Conners, originally from Moundsville, West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York and is an English professor at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Her first poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist. Her second collection, Species of Least Concern was published by Main Street Rag in 2022. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Bodega, Kestrel, Split Rock Review, RHINO, and The Monarch Review, among others. She is also the author of the book, Laugh Lines: Humor, Genre, and Political Critique in Late Twentieth-Century American Poetry (University Press of Mississippi, 2022).
Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.
For those who don’t know poet Timothy (Tim) Russell, I want to introduce you to as solid a working-class poet as there is. Tim qualifies as a working-class poet not just because he wrote of that life (as did famed James Wright and Kenneth Patchen), but because he also lived it. He worked for 20 years as a boiler repairman in the Weirton Steel plant ‘til his lupus (MDS preleukemia disease) forced him to retire. He retired from the labor but not from the life and not from writing. For the next 30 years, he and his wife Jodi and kids lived along mile 61 of the Ohio River in small-town Toronto, Ohio.
I grew up about 20 minutes south of there in Mingo Junction, about 20 minutes north of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where Wright grew up. The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets. In 1991 David Shevin and I edited A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (a line from Wright) which included poetry chapbooks of Tim Russell, Richard Hague, David J. Adams, and Kip Knott. It was one of our first books in the Working Lives Series from Bottom Dog Press.
Last month, other poets and I gathered with his family and friends for his memorial, at which Jodi and grandkids spread Tim’s ashes in the river about a block away from their home. Here’s a bit of West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman’s eulogy quoting Tim’s poem, “Plano.”
Because hills are not on the maps,
it's easy to get lost here, distant
neighborhoods appear to be adjacent.
“Even though I lived a long time in the rural heart of Appalachia,” Harshman said, “those words obviously ring true for Tim’s urban mill town as well. And it is ‘easy to get lost here,’ but Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost. That’s a gift, a gift worth remembrance at any time but certainly here, today, as we do our best to remember and to honor Tim and know this is one of many reasons we miss him.”
Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost.
In the mill, Tim was nicknamed “Mad Dog”; among poets he was the “Steel Mill Poet,” though he is equally a fine nature poet. A sample of his work reveals how enmeshed he was with the mills and his place, its people, and their language:
In Adversa by Timothy Russell
March is the nuthatch
down the bare black walnut
or the bare silver maple.
April is forsythia
beneath hazy pastel willows
weeping over the bank
of the orange creek.
May is mock orange
scattered like mortar explosions,
the most delicate mist
rising all around.
June is the red squirrel
fleeing the blue joy
both of them caught in the morning
sun crackling in the sycamore.
August is sulfur
moths twirling above the crown
vetch, deer prints in silt
at the culvert.
September is crab
apples, so red
on the roadside
near the Tin Mill
October is a buck
swimming the river,
climbing the gray slag bank
toward red and yellow
trees on the island.
Tim authored many books, each winning prizes and literary recognition. He is the author of the chapbook The Possibility of Turning to Salt 1987, which received the Golden Webb Award, 1987; of In Dubio 1988, which received State Street Press, 1988; and of In Medias Res, 1991. His full-length book, Adversaria, in 1993 received the Terrence des Pres Prizeia Poetry (Tri Quarterly Books). Chapbooks What We Don’t Know Hurts, 1995, and Lacrimae, 1997, followed; his haiku writing received the 4th Shiki International Haiku award Shiki team, Ehime Prefecture, Japan, 1999.
In Integrum by Timothy Russell
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate my neighbor’s glaring roof,
the brick chimney leaning against its
the next of black branches above it all
dissolving into brilliance.
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate cookies on a plate downstairs
and the pears and oranges in a bowl
with one perfectly curved banana.
I am celebrating the Christmas cactus
blooming in March.
I am celebrating nothing.
I am celebrating today.
I’ve put a white shirt on.
How did Tim share his days? Besides parenting, his wife Jodi says, “Tim tended to his gardens along the Ohio riverbank and built a stone henge across from his house fondly called ‘Tim Henge.’ He also grew poppies, zinnias, and sunflowers in it throughout the years. Battling knotweed on the hillside, he turned it into a bird and wildlife sanctuary. He would ride along the banks of the river in his boat collecting garbage and debris trying to keep the river clean. He was mindful of sharing and taking care of the earth for everyone and everything.”
Tim had a great sense of humor and a fine sense of image and form. He uses the common language to touch us. A world-published poet, he wrote many haiku and won many prizes with them, including a trip to Japan. Here is the last haiku he wrote, a few days before he died:
The little dog knows
A fund has been established at the University of Pittsburgh, Tim’s alma mater. It will help support a freshman majoring in English Creative Writing. Donations may be made online at http://www.giveto.pitt.edu/russellmemorial or a check may be made payable to “University of Pittsburgh” with a memo “Timothy W. Russell Fund” and mailed to: University of Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-0093.
Timothy W. Russell was born May 25, 1951, and raised in Follansbee, West Virginia. As a sergeant of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era he served as a handler of Military Police Sentry Dogs 1970-1972. He had graduated from Madonna High School (1969) in Weirton and following the war, went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty College (1977) and master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh (1979). He passed away on September 16, 2021, at 70.
Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books. Bottom Dog Press hopes to publish the collected poems of Timothy Russell soon.
Header image of Ohio River is credited to Larry Smith
Rebecca here–many thanks to Larry Smith for this beautiful tribute to the the life and work of Tim Russell. Please visit Bottom Dog Press’ website for his Working Lives series…and much more.
Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.
Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.
The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”
Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.
Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:
Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?
I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.
When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:
What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.
Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?
It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.
I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought,how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?
David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.
One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.
The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.
Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.
In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?
Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.
The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.
From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.
Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?
The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.
I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.
Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.
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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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