By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
The places in our lives are as complicated as the people in our lives. Economic exigencies may make it impossible to remain in the place that feeds your soul, and the countryside that provides a refuge from the tempests of modern life can’t shield you from your past traumas. Mesha Maren’s novel, Sugar Run (2019, Algonquin Books), burrows deep into this territory, the balancing acts we pull and how we forge relationships with the places we call home.
We meet Maren’s protagonist, Jodi McCarty, in 2007, as she is being released from a Georgia prison where she has served 18 years. She doesn’t have much of a plan for her post-prison life, except that she wants to return to her grandmother Effie’s land in West Virginia, a place she has been cut off from since she was a teenager. Jodi has nostalgia, but not savvy and she holds a dream of this place — of raising livestock and living off the land — as a child might dream of it.
Maren writes, ‘I’d fit, she thought, and pictured the land in West Virginia, the smell of wheat in the field and sunlight scissoring through the trees, the way the rhythms of the days and even the air around her had always felt right.’
Maren grew up in a pretty isolated stretch up on Muddy Creek Mountain, outside Alderson, West Virginia. The Federal Prison Camp for female prisoners is located there and her father volunteered there, sometimes taking his daughter with him to visit the prisoners. Now, Maren herself teaches creative writing inside prison walls, as well as teaching at Duke University.
“Those of us who love Appalachia — there’s a certain connection to the land. Because we love it so much and because the land is hard. It’s not the easiest place to make a living or get the land to give back to you, you know? I almost think that makes the love stronger,” Maren said when she spoke to the Current recently. She inherited the 13-acres she grew up on and she and her partner return there on the weekends and over the summers when they’re not both teaching in North Carolina.
“I know the land there so well. Sometimes my relationship to it feels like a relationship to a person — that intense and that deep.”
Sugar Run pivots between the events leading to Jodi’s incarceration in 1989, when she was a 17-year-old, in love with and running scams with a card shark named Paula, and the time immediately after her release.
Upon her return to the mountains of her childhood, she finds the land surrounding Effie’s land owned by fracking operations, the latest iteration of the extractive capitalism that has shaped the Appalachian experience for centuries.
“Now there’s a fracking operation less than 10 miles from Alderson, from my hometown, but the research I was doing was on fracking in Western Pennsylvania — the way that it was affecting communities from drinking water to the economic impact,” Maren said.
“The short-term economic impact of having people come to town and suddenly the rent goes up. You have this company paying the employees they bring with them, who are not locals. People can charge higher rent and charge more for food and beer and there become these little bubbles. And then everything leaves town.”
Ill-equipped to deal with the realities of real estate and industry interest, she still fights for the land she views as a refuge from judgment. But Jodi is a lesbian and has shown up with a woman, a lover, who she met right after release. This rural area is more conservative than a big city, so her brother cagily weaponizes her sexuality against her. His manipulations place her and everything she loves in danger.
The land may be welcoming, but the place is not hospitable.
“I found this to be true of my own lived experience as a queer woman in West Virginia,” Maren said. “There is a way in some rural communities where your role as a member of the community can sort of supercede the otherness about you. But it’s a very dangerous place to be in, because you never quite know where those lines fall. That’s a part of the push-pull of West Virginia, for me and for others. It is a place that can be so comforting. But it also is a place that can be deeply troubling or problematic for queer people. Or for people of color. That is never not there.”