I grew up a hair’s breadth from White Trash. What kept my family above that line was the incredible work ethic of my parents, combined with my mother’s iron frugality and determination to be respectable. Oh, and luck. Those things that destroy working class economies – catastrophic illness, substance addiction, houses burning down, unfaithfulness, and industries closing up shop – didn’t happen to us. Some of my relatives weren’t so lucky, and their families slipped down into the border ranges of poverty and rage.
Great fictional literature about White Trash in America seems dominated by southern writers. Thank you, Faulkner and Caldwell and O’Connor, et. al. But their characters weren’t my people. I grew up in the cold lands, where springs can come late, wet fields will bring on a rot that can damn your kitchen garden, children wear bread bags inside their snow boots to keep their feet dry, and cold seeps in through bad windows every night. Mothers rub Bag Balm onto cracking fingers all winter long, hoping that it will stop the pain. Bag Balm, marketed now in trendy outdoor catalogs, is an ointment farmers use on cow’s udders to keep them from getting infected and cracked. It has a strong smell. My parents had a square green tin of it in their medicine cabinet.
So when in 1985, I read The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and found a character described as smelling of Bag Balm, I immediately recognized my people. In fact, I remember this book being full of the smells imprinted from my childhood: cigarettes, sweat, the grease-and-stale-beer reek of bars, wet woolen socks and mittens, and wood smoke mixed with cold Canadian air. Of course, no one like my mother exists in the extensive Bean family, so there isn’t much Pine-sol, bleach, lemon Pledge, or the freshness of sun-dried sheets to be found in the story. She would have been, like me, on the outside of this tale, looking in.
“This book was involuntarily researched. I have lived poverty. I didn’t CHOOSE it. No one would choose humiliation, pain, and rage.”
Caroline Chute, 1985