Monica Potts, author of "The Forgotten Girls: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America," grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks in a small town where educational and employment opportunities were limited.
After success in high school, she was able to attend a prestigious college in another state and achieve success and national awards as a journalist, writing about politics for publications in New York and Washington, D.C.
She would occasionally return home to Clinton, a town of 2,500, to visit family and her childhood best friend, Darci Brawner. Over the years, she began to notice gradual and troubling changes in her friend, who, like the author, had been a good student with dreams for the future.
Monica's journalistic expertise is poverty, a condition she knows well from her rural working-class background and its challenges. Fortunately, she had parents who understood the importance of education and sought extra opportunities for their daughter. Unfortunately for Darci, her parents had difficult and fragmented lives, with multiple divorces, alcoholism and drug addiction.
Monica began reading studies and reports about what have been called deaths of despair and their impact on rural and low-income communities, especially on women. She wondered why these deaths were more prevalent among some groups than others: "Why did a drug like meth take over in some places but not others? Why would prescription painkillers, which are available everywhere, kill poor, uneducated white people in greater numbers than other groups? Why did the rate of suicide rise and spread in rural areas faster than elsewhere?"
These complicated cultural and sociological issues, inherent with questions that Monica wanted to explore, persuaded her to move back to Clinton for further investigation.
It turned out that Darci, who had reached out to Monica after many years, became her primary subject, almost an exemplar of what has been happening in rural counties in the middle of the country: less diversity, aging populations, women dying younger, population loss and economic stagnation. Darci allowed Monica to use the journals she'd kept in her youth, and Monica used her own long-ago journals for reference, along with her interviews with local residents and academic research.
What had happened to Darci? She left high school during her senior year, spent some time in jail, endured a period of homelessness, became a single mother, and had longtime substance abuse. Her weak family connections provided little help with her serious problems. Instead, she came to repeat some of her mother's mistakes.
The choices Darci made and the realities she faced in Clinton had much to do with class, the background and attitudes of the Scots-Irish who settled the area and why they stayed: cheap land, for the most part, but also the area's natural beauty. The population was and is majority white. Those who manage to leave town rarely return, creating a brain drain in an area needing energy and purpose.
Monica details the lack of essential information and help facing young people. Combined with low expectations and lack of support for other life possibilities -- what Monica calls the "poverty of imagination" -- these factors result in lost opportunities and community decline.
For women, the local culture encourages early marriage. Statistics show the negative impact of this choice on their life expectancy, which has undergone the most dramatic decline in a century. Likewise, the emphasis on land and property, despite individual poverty, and aversion to needed government social programs further contribute to a town in crisis.
"The Forgotten Girls" focuses on what's happening in rural communities throughout the country, using Monica's bond with Darci over the years to illustrate the problem. Even though they were often apart, "we were friends because we had once been friends, because the strong connections young children forge can stay locked in place forever."
Madeline Matson is the reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.