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Kittanning writer's stories explore life in Northern Appalachia

Jolene McIlwain
Liam McIlwain
Melville House Publishing
Jolene McIlwain's debut story collection is titled "Sidle Creek."

It takes less than an hour to drive from Pittsburgh to Kittanning. But the two towns can seem a world apart.

The divide between cities and small towns or rural areas has been with us for generations, and — from a political and economic perspective — has grown only wider. But with her debut story collection, one lifelong Kittanning resident has put fresh faces on Northern Appalachia as she seeks to overturn stereotypes about the region.

“Sidle Creek” includes 22 stories by Jolene McIlwain, who grew up in Kittanning and lives there still, near Pine and Crooked creeks — the real streams that flow into the Allegheny River and inspired the book’s titular, if fictional, creek.

“Sidle Creek” came out in May, on Melville House Publishing. The stories range in tone from the poignant “You Four Are the One,” about four young girls determined to ensure a neighbor carries her pregnancy to term, to “Loosed,” a hard-bitten story about a man whose greed leads him to stage cockfights, then dogfights, and finally blood matches between his own sons. “Those Red Boots” plays like a mystery, with a restaurant owner agonizing over whether the cheerleader boots he makes his waitresses wear figured in one of the women’s sudden disappearance.

The City and the Town

The collection has gotten a strong initial response, with positive reviews from the likes of the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and NPR, whose reviewer said the stories "charm, surprise, and convey a deep love of the people and place McIlwain has long called home."

The oldest of the stories dates back 15 years, when McIlwain was still teaching at Duquesne University and Chatham University, posts she held until 2018 (when she took a pause to care for her father). She did her undergraduate and graduate studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her commute as a teacher, up and down Route 28, provided inspiration for some of her stories.

“I was fascinated sometimes by some of the misconceptions that people had in the city, about where I lived. But I was also surprised by some of the misconceptions I had about the people living in the city,” she said. “There are a lot of unbelievable, amazing hikers and people that forage mushrooms, just like people in the rural areas, but we don't get together enough.”

In “Sidle Creek,” cultures do clash. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” depicts an elderly widowed professor from the city who becomes fixated on a wild deer as a sort of avatar of his late wife; his neighbors include both a game warden who befriends him and a family he fears will harm the deer. In “The Less Said,” affluent hunters from the city are linked to the disappearance and abuse of local young women.

Appalachia has been contested political territory for generations, certainly since President Lyndon B. Johnson symbolically launched the War on Poverty in eastern Kentucky, in 1964. More recently, J.D. Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” — which admirers cited as a key to understanding Donald Trump’s popularity among the white working class — has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about irresponsible poor people.

McIlwain said Appalachia — which stretches from the Deep South to southern New York — is just one among many American regions that are oversimplified and misunderstood.

A lot of times people are looking from afar and trying to understand who people are just by the sound bites they see on television or the movies that they see or the books they read, without ever traveling to those places,” she said. “I was really trying to interrogate some of those stereotypes and upend them, if I could, because I think we do everyone a disservice whenever we make a caricature or stereotype of people, whether those people live in an urban setting, a suburban setting or a rural area. It's not good for any of us to do that.”

“More Small-Town Stories”

McIlwain said her setting and subject matter might have made getting published harder.

“I worried about the fact that I might not have been writing about Appalachia in the way that people were used to,” she said. “And I did even get some feedback in that regard. But I really couldn't write about anything else. I mean, I really wanted to write about the place where I was raised. I thought it was important that I did that. I thought that there was a little bit of a hole in the literary world that needed to be filled with more small-town stories.”

“Some of the stories in this collection are very dark and they're very heavy, heavy subjects, child abuse, animal abuse, and also this idea of the exploitation of resources in our areas,” she added. “And I think that sometimes the subjects might have been maybe a little bit too dark for what those journals were wanting to publish.”

When not writing, McIlwain works as a “gofer” for her husband’s excavating company, and as an editor at the JMWW Journal, among other gigs. She’s also writing a novel. In any case, she plans to remain one of the neighbors she writes about in “Sidle Creek.”

“I think that we have to really make sure that when we're looking at neighbors, we kind of look at what neighbors can do for us,” she said. “But neighbors can be detrimental to us as well. They can be really a source of, you know, agony. So I wanted to look at both of those things, how people help each other and how people really hurt each other.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: