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.





  1. I strongly suspect that this country has many such places as DeLop , and not all of them in the south.  We don’t hear much about poverty with the seemingly endless Republican administrations we keep “electing”.  If you never address the subject of poverty, you don’t have to do anything about it.  That leaves plenty of money to throw away on meaningless wars.

  2. I saw a PBS special about a year ago about a boy/kid growing up in rural Tennessee.  The documentary did show what I consider to be some pretty deplorable living conditions, but they weren’t that out of the ordinary for the town unfortunately.  

  3.  I drove through Kentucky this spring and saw lots of shacks that people called homes. The New Deal has had a lot of threats lately and the tax cuts have destroyed infrastructures and schools in places. Where I live the veterans hospital closed due to tax cuts and also a factory due to jobs overseas leaving people out of work. Big hog farms have bought out the family farm. I noticed that people have started talking in “white trash” dialect too.  The other day this dad who has really bad grammar asked why his kid got a D in English and an A in Spanish.  I just laughed.  How can you tell him it’s because he is a hick and the Spanish teacher is not?    I would like to move to Latte Land. 

  4. I once knew a family – this was in the late 80s – who lived in a house that was relatively intact, but unfinished, meaning unpainted on the inside and undecorated.  The only heat was a wood burning pot belly type stove.  They had a couch, but it was tattered and flattened.  Plastic on some windows.  And while I say ‘family,’ it was really just several young women – sisters and cousins to each other – and their many fatherless children.  I don’t remember knowing of any men present who brought in money or provided anything.  I don’t know how they got by.I knew another family in the late 70s who had a house at the end of a dirt road.  The house was unpainted (or if it once had paint, it had nearly all peeled off) and the roof sagged.  They had a TV, fridge, and electricity and indoor plumbing – even a couple of horses in a delapidated barn, but the place was a shambles.  The two kids were teenagers and their mother had left; their father was unemployed, I don’t know what he did – he was never a real presence – and the kids mainly managed their daily lives on their own.  I don’t know how they got by either.Both of those families were in Arkansas.I’m sure their are still pockets of abject, uneducated poverty in the US, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn these were mostly in the deep south and appalachia. 

  5. that deep generational poverty that you are talking about is very ingrained in parts of our country. it’s in our most urban and most rural parts. they look different on the outside, but the effects are the same. i don’t know if there’s a cure. the other poverty that is even less seen is the middle-class poverty- when shame takes over after a job lost or a major illness and no one talks about the 450K house that has no food and everything except the car has been sold to pay bills. most americans are only a paycheck or two from being homeless- and not just in the deep south.

  6. I grew up in an affluent Atlanta suburb, so I would have hesitated to believe that the Southeast I grew up in had pockets of poverty like you described. . .until my senior year summer mission trip to Briceville, Tennesee.  The 2 previous summers I had gone to Bolivia and Jamaica for work projects.  Although the poverty didn’t compare to those (3rd world) neighborhoods, it was pretty severe and hard to believe people lived like that in the States.  We repaired a bathroom, that had the tub falling through the floor and other rotting flooring.  And we put a new roof on a house.  But what I remember most is the dirty faces of the kids, who were hanging around.

  7. I live in a fairly wealthy metropolis area.  My in-laws teach in NW Arkansas, which is pretty good, but from what they say, the SE parts of Arkansas (school-wise) are pretty terrible – very much what you are describing.  It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  And here I sit in my lovely home feeding my child peaches and drinking Starbucks…  I don’t feel guilty, so much as sad.

  8. Oh yes, I’m sure it exists… there are many rural pockets in the south and midwest, in particular, that remain untouched by decent public schools, health care, or any of the basic services that might be available to the urban poor.  Scary.  By the way, Joshilyn Jackson is the close personal friend of another xangan, lostcheerio, so maybe you could get in touch and demand more details about this specific locale – haha. 

  9. by the way, did you read The Glass Castle memoir by Jeannette Walls?  Oh my – she grew up in the 1970s and 80s (i.e. she’s about our age) and, although her parents were a little psycho and often poor by choice, she recounts the abject poverty of living in West Virginia and other areas (also in the southwest, I think – her family moved around a lot), of houses with no plumbing or electricity, of living out of their car for long stretches of time, of digging in the garbage for food, etc.  Walls is now a successful NYC journalist and her mother is still homeless (well, as of the writing of that book).  Also Dorothy Allison – also rural south – what stuck in my head from Allison’s memoirs was an account of having nothing to eat for days but saltines with ketchup on them. 

  10. It’s not just the South or Appalachia. I think there are small pockets everywhere. When I was in college, I drove through central Illinois on my way home to Chicago… I took the back roads instead of the expressway because my friend, who was driving, was afraid to drive on the highway. In a little town named Norway, we came across something I have never seen before or since in Illinois: rows of shacks. Literally, shacks made of cardboard and corrugated metal, with holes in the walls, where you could tell just by looking at them that there was no heat or electricity or plumbing. There was an eerie, fog-like smoke coming out of them, and an elderly, bearded man in filthy overalls walking through it. I just stared out the window in shock as we went by. I’d seen inner-city poverty and trailer parks before, but while the environment might be dangerous and run-down, the buildings were still actual buildings. I’d never imagined that anyone might live in a shack in Illinois… let alone just 40 minutes southwest of my suburban Chicago house. I didn’t see anything like that again until I took vacations to Egypt and Peru, where shacks made of mud and corrugated metal were a common sight, and children were  working in fields during what ought to be school hours… sometimes we forget how lucky we are.

  11. I live in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina and can attest to such conditions existing here, in Tennessee, and in West Virginia.  There are areas within 15 miles of where I live (a wealthy tourist town full of affluent businesspeople and rich Florida retirees that live here seasonally) that are absolutely appalling in their poverty.  A short drive on some back roads can take you into places you never ever want to go – yes, we have public schools, but many kids come from dilapidated tarp- and cardboard-patched trailers or shacks in the back of beyond and I fear their school attendance is not monitored the way it should be, in part because many families here fall through the cracks.  I’m not entirely sure the state even knows some of these kids exist, and since their fathers often protect their property with loaded shotguns no one really goes looking.  There is a ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ mentality that is passed down through generations that keeps them isolated.  They literally will not let anyone help them or their families, and there aren’t enough people who care to reach them all…

  12. Hard to believe, but it does seem to exist.  I have never really been to any of the places mentioned here, but it’s true that we are all closer to that than we like to think.I hope I never have to live in a shack… Yikes

  13. Oh yes.  Yes, places like that definitely exist.  We are on another planet, most of us.  It’s not all a question of poverty and education, either.  Some of it is a matter of being in an area so rural as to be in an another period in history.  Don’t you feel like you’re reading about the past??

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