July 15/365 My People

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.

bean.jpgGreat 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




7 thoughts on “July 15/365 My People

  1. I read that probably about the same time you read it. I didn’t have the same reaction of familiarity as you did but I loved the book. I tried to read her next book but I couldn’t finish it.


  2. I am lucky to be a generation removed from this–though st. Louis isn’t as cold or rural as your upbringing. I find ripples and echoes throughout my life and my choices. Another book for my list.


  3. A friend of mine moved to Maine about 20 years ago, and met Carolyn Chute. He said she reminded him of me in a way. I looked her up, and was less than thrilled, which I suppose was rather shallow of me. “In what way does she remind you of me?” I asked, but his answer was vague. I looked her up again tonight. Even watched a video. Still not thrilled.


  4. Wow, this is such a wonderful, evocative review. I do so adore learning about other’s life experiences through this project of ours.

    I could totally relate to the second sentence, especially with your “mother’s iron frugality and determination to be respectable.” That was both my parents, to be honest. Though where I grew up we were, pretty much, all poor. Poor but respectable. There was no “white trash” equivalent terminology, thank goodness, although I guess there were people who would fit the bill.


    • I was reminded when I wrote the next blog, that in the US deep South, there is a distinction between White Trash, and white trash — one respectable, and the other not. In the North, I think there was a distinction made between Working Class, and White Trash, the first having not given up, and the second having raised a white flag. And in the whole picture, there is always the distinction of race. For white trash folk, there is no equivalent color coded word for darker skinned poor people…the assumption is that they are already trash. There is no mirror put up to my childhood that does not show racism.


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