By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributing Writer
Cindy Stoat is hit and miss in her ability to read the humans in her world. She grows up connected more to the land around her than to the people. She counts the few cars passing by her rural home, daydreams as she rides in the back of her brother’s truck, reads catalogs (there are no books in the house), and subsists on (sometimes stolen) junk food and sugary drinks. She’s kind of feral. But with Cheetos.
Marilou Is Everywhere (Riverhead Books, 2019), the magnificent first novel from local author Sarah Elaine Smith, centers around Cindy.
“I’ve been really tired of how other people write about Appalachia,” Smith said when she sat down with the Current. The novel is set in Greene County, one of the poorest and least populous counties in Pennsylvania, with about 36,500 total residents. It’s where Smith herself grew up. After high school, Smith went to Carnegie Mellon, then on to earn two MFAs, from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, respectively.
“I really wanted to write something that included the lived-in experience of growing up there. I read stuff that doesn’t feel lived in to me, or it feels pre-received, or there’s some kind of idea that’s being transmuted about the place. I wanted to write really rooted in the experience. I wrote a lot based on sense memory growing up where I did,” she said.
Those sense memories bubble forth in descriptions of place that are downright Faulknerian. Isolation, neglect, unnamable economic anxiety and the threat of physical danger are their own kinds of trauma. And Smith puts us deep inside Cindy’s traumatized head. The reader inhales the smell of grass cuttings mixed with exhaust in the back of the truck; we move about in their dimly lit house, where her mother is absent more often than not; and we feel Cindy’s unease and uncertainty.
The action tips off with the disappearance of an 18-year-old woman. The missing Jude is a young woman of color and, as such, someone viewed as not fully of this mostly white place, even though she is actually from this place.
“I was thinking a lot about how often I hear white writers who are from rural places, like where I’m from, say things like, ‘I would write about race, but there weren’t any people of color in my high school, or statistically it was almost entirely white.’ Which is really telling — it points to this assumption that race belongs not to white people, like, I don’t have any obligation to think about that. That is fascinating. Racism can be talked about, I think, within whiteness,” Smith said.
Because the novel is set in rural northern Appalachia, she is able to roll around in the insularity, the poverty, and the mistrust of anybody seen as an outsider. There are upsides to growing up in isolated areas, one of which is a much richer and deeper connection to the natural rather than man-made world. And we see some of that through Cindy’s eyes, too, as she befriends the trees and the crickets and the changing shadows as the morning slides to the afternoon.
But Cindy is not living an ideal country life, communing with nature like Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau. Essential human needs for warmth, deep connection and simple nourishing meals are missed. And though she can’t give voice to what’s missing, Cindy feels it acutely.
Smith takes the reader to truly astonishing and unexpected places, especially as Cindy develops a relationship with the missing girl’s mother. It leads her protagonist to do some patently crazy things, to “evacuate her own life,” as Smith put it. She gets away with it for a really long time because nobody notices: nobody really cares what happens to her because nobody has really seen Cindy Stoat. Or Jude.
“All of the women in the book — are there ways that they have been missing for a long time before they go missing?” Smith wonders. “So, that’s maybe the first place that starts to show up — maybe Jude’s community is not doing a good job of seeing her before she goes missing. That failure to see her might be perpetuating what’s happening to her.”
You crack open a book which seems to be about a missing girl and end up on a journey about what it means to be an outsider, to live with the trauma of neglect. It explores questions about how a young person might find her way through life with no adults lighting the way with care.
Sarah Elaine Smith will read at Penguin Books in Sewickley on Sept 26th.