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Growing Up In Rural PA Is 'The Great Riddle Of My Life,' Says 'Marilou' Author

Sarah Elaine Smith's first novel finds poetry in dispiriting surroundings.

Here's how Cindy, the central character in Marilou Is Everywhere, describes her life in rural Pennsylvania at the age of 14:
I used to think my troubles got legs the summer Jude Vanderjohn disappeared, but now I see how they started much earlier. Before that summer, the things that happened to me were air and water and just as see-thru. They were real but I didn't care for them much. I did not care for the real. It didn't seem so special to me, whatever communion I could take with the dust spangles, or the snakes that spun in an oiled way along the rotting tractor tires stacked up by the shed, or the stony light that fell in those hills and made the vines and mosses this vivid nightmare green. None of it had a purpose to me. Everything I saw seemed to have been emptied out and left there humming. I watched the cars. I read catalogs, which I collected and which my family called Cindy's magazines. My life was an empty place. From where I stood, it seared on with a blank and merciless light. All dust and no song.
Things do change for Cindy that summer. The disappearance of the teenage Jude leads her to Jude's bereft and unwell mother, Bernadette — and thusly to a maternal figure missing from her own life.

Smith was born and raised in Appalachia — in Greene County, Penn., the far southwest corner of the state. She now lives about 60-odd miles north in Pittsburgh, where she spoke to NPR about her book.

Interview Highlights

On the character Bernadette

Bernadette is a cogent character at times, and at other times, she is very palpably suffering from a kind of dementia. And Cindy takes advantage of that in order to gain information about Jude's life, and how to fit into that world — learning what kind of daughter Bernadette expects. And Bernadette, for her part: To me, it seems possible that she is aware at times that Cindy is not her daughter. But they're both lonely in a way that makes them willing to overlook pretty obvious truths.

On growing up in Greene County

Growing up there has been the great riddle of my life. And I think, in a lot of ways, I wanted to write this book to tease out some of the contradictions and expose some of the things that are both beautiful and really troubling about the place. ...

I feel very aware of how easy it is to objectify Appalachian places — even for me, as someone who grew up in one. And in Marilou Is Everywhere, Cindy's family experience[s] poverty in a way that might be a more familiar view of Appalachia. But Jude and Bernadette, their family also represents a presence in those places, of people who move back to the land out of the pursuit of the idea that they might live in nature. And all of those people are in Appalachia, and their interactions with each other are much more complicated than they're often given to be.

On Janice Hatfield, the teacher to whom the book is dedicated

She was the first teacher who told me about writing. You know, "You could do this." "If you want to do this, you can do this." ... That was at West Greene High School. And she supervised the literary magazine and the newspaper. I worked on both of those, and I took every class of hers I could.

And one thing I remember in particular: She used to give me huge boxes of books — huge boxes. And whenever I would try to give them back to her later, she'd say, "Oh no, I have extras of all of those." And I just thought: There's no way you have extras of all of these books. But that's just a little bit of her generosity.

On how stress and suffering can lead to happiness

One of the crucial turns in the book occurs when Cindy begins to realize that even though she has been in tremendous pain and also caused tremendous pain, she still has the choice of deciding how she's going to react from then on — what she's going to do with that knowledge. And it turns out for her that realizing that that decision matters is actually, in a way, the beginning of unexpected happiness for her.

And that's something that I actually really resisted when I was writing earlier drafts of this book. I thought: "Oh no, a happy ending!" ... "How gauche!" But I've experienced that pain can be the source of tremendous changes, and the things that we learn that way can really make our lives beautiful.

Ian Stewart and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.