Every time I read a novel set in the southeastern United States, I feel like I’m reading an anthropology textbook. Those people live in the same country I do, but they may as well live on another planet.
In The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Joshilyn Jackson introduces us to DeLop, Alabama, a mining town without a working mine, in which the shacks have big holes in the roof and generations of filthy children spend their days wiping their snotty noses on their raggedy shirts and don’t much go to school, and everyone talks like they’re on the Jerry Springer show, only far less cogently. Jackson explains in the acknowledgements that the name is fictional but the town is real.
Is it? Can someone who lives down yonder verify the existence of such places? Because there’s just nothing like that here in Latte Land. For the most part, poor children in Seattle attend public schools, where they receive free breakfast and lunch, and even if they have a deadbeat parent who is passed out drunk or stoned on the couch when they get home, there’s a relatively intact roof over them.
There is a homeless population, of course, as there is in any big city. But the problem is not ignored, as is Jackson’s DeLop. Indeed, endless, caterwauling soul searching about homelessness goes on everywhere, from the government to the do-gooder non-profits to the columnists in the Times. The problem seems quite intractable, but the population is transient, by definition. Quite unlike the trapped-forever residents of DeLop.
It’s not that I really doubt its existence. I’ve seen pictures of rural southern poverty. But somehow in my head that environment exists in the past, before the New Deal and the Great Society and Bobby Kennedy. How could the richest nation in the world have a DeLop, Alabama? And yet, apparently, it does.