Greene County, Pennsylvania, and Coal: Background information when reading Marilou Is Everywhere

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Marilou Is Everywhere

A Novel

by Sarah Elaine Smith

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith X
Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book

Greene County, Pennsylvania, and Coal

This article relates to Marilou Is Everywhere

Print Review

Richard T. Foley Site Sarah Elaine Smith's Marilou Is Everywhere is set in Greene County, Pennsylvania, in the southwest corner of the state, bordering West Virginia. The novel vividly reflects the economic distress of the struggling communities and families that make up this county. It's a mostly rural area, with just under 39,000 residents in the last census; its largest town is the county seat of Waynesburg, population 4,200. Greene County's population peaked back in the 1950s at 45,000, and has been steadily diminishing since then, as opportunities for blue-collar employment continue to dwindle due to the ongoing decline of the once-vibrant coal industry.

As with much of West Virginia, this part of Pennsylvania was heavily reliant on coal mining for much of its economic history; facing a bleak future, Greene County remains one of the biggest coal-producing counties east of the Missisippi. According to a 2017 New Yorker article, there are 2,000 underground jobs in Greene County, and each one supports about 2.7 jobs on the surface; threats to close the local mines could result in about 7,000 jobs lost overall. Meanwhile, the once-promising natural gas fracking industry has resulted in unintended environmental and health consequences, and in many cases, the low price of natural gas has not brought in the big paydays promised to residents leasing their land to fracking companies.

Greene County is solidly part of Appalachia. According to a 2019 economic study, the luckiest of miners in Greene County could earn close to six figures during the coal industry's heyday; in 2017, however, the average per capita income was just over $41,000 (versus a $53,000 Pennsylvania average). In the same year, two huge coal mines in Greene County shut down, with a third major mine facing closure due to rapidly diminishing production.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Greene County by 30 percent, coal-friendly Donald Trump carried 68 percent of the Greene County vote in the 2016 presidential election after he promised to re-invest in coal mining. Despite Trump's assertion that he would save the coal industry (and Hillary Clinton's campaign gaffe that seemed to suggest she was in favor of putting miners out of work), his administration's recent tax breaks for coal companies have failed to trickle down to distressed workers, some of whom are coming to terms with a realization that the coal industry is unlikely to rebound. It remains to be seen whether struggling residents of this economically distressed area will remain loyal to Trump in the 2020 election or return to their Democratic roots.

That's not to say that all hope is lost in Greene County. Local and regional agencies are doing their part to help boost Greene County's economy via economic development and tourism. Key landmarks such as the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, publications like a brochure designed to encourage Pittsburgh residents to explore neighboring regions, and events ranging from county fairs to sporting events may help provide much-needed boosts to what is undeniably a beautiful corner of Pennsylvania.

Photo of Richard T. Foley Site in Greene County courtesy of Nyttend

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Norah Piehl

This "beyond the book article" relates to Marilou Is Everywhere. It originally ran in September 2019 and has been updated for the July 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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