Exploring the art of prose


Beyond Binary Thinking: Writing Cruelty Without Inflicting Harm

Image is a color photograph of a red door propped up against a rock wall; title card for the new critical essay, "Beyond Binary Thinking: Writing Cruelty Without Inflicting Harm" by Claire Polders.


By Claire Polders •


I’m married to an American, have visited the United States in the past two decades on at least two dozen occasions, and have spent time in seven different states, but the rural and rather cruel Pennsylvanian community Jolene McIlwain features in her impressive debut story collection, Sidle Creek (an NPR favorite for 2023!), first appears to me as an unexplored country. Her characters could be members of a secret society in an alien land.

In reality, or at least in the reality of McIlwain’s fiction, they’re fishermen, millworkers, bartenders, dog breeders, oil diggers, fortune tellers, and one-handed drummers, all surviving in a harsh land of muddy banks and strip mines. Or they’re girls who know more about hooking live minnows to catch rainbow trout than about the painful workings of their own bodies.

In the collection’s fourth story, “The Fractal Geometry of Grief,” we meet a widowed mathematician who retired and relocated from the city to the Sidle Creek area just before his wife died. “Far, both mentally and physically, from their former university positions, it was a secluded nine-acre lot isolated from everything domestic and human,” he thinks about his new home environment. “Filled with everything feral, wild.”

I might have felt similarly toward this place had I been transplanted there from the clean Dutch suburbs where I grew up, or from the bourgeois-bohemian Parisian streets where I lived for most of my life.

Jolene McIlwain was born in the Appalachian plateau of Western Pennsylvania and currently lives in a small town in that region. She has a deep relationship with the place and its people, and through her empathetic character-driven descriptions, I got an insider’s look into this unknown area.

The thirteen-year-old narrator in the collection’s title story says, “Before my uncle Bobby went away to the pen, back before his layoff at the mine and his broken marriage and the drug bust and the helicopters hovering over the hunting camp while state boys dragged him from the attic with bits of pink insulation stuck to his shirt, we all fished together at Granddad’s spot, like some happy family.”

Just like Elena Ferrante took me to her beloved yet macho mid-twentieth century Naples in her Neapolitan Quartet, McIlwain lets me walk among the people with whom she grew up. Reading Sidle Creek, I let a kinship grow between me and these rural Pennsylvanians, a kinship that simultaneously leaves me appreciative and uneasy, for it connects me to their unfamiliar though all too human brutality.


The Magic of Water

As in the chapter-stories in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Plainsong by Kent Haruf, the characters from one narrative in Sidle Creek pop up in another as distant neighbors, enemies, or saviors. What links the lives in these twenty-two stories even more, however, is the rugged landscape and the title’s creek. The characters, separated in time and space, are connected by an unpredictable water stream that is at once threatening, sustaining, and promising. The creek and the forests surrounding the stream are sources of hope and magic, so much so that the widowed mathematician, initially so fearful of his feral environment, falls in love with a doe and imagines, while studying the animal in photographs, that she is his nature-adoring wife reincarnated. “In the early morning shots with sun flitting through the trees, her tender eyes looked straight into the camera’s lens, into Hubert’s eyes, into his cracked heart.”

But it’s best not to get attached to wildlife in an area where men hunt for sport.


Blood, Poverty, Loss, and Abuse

Sidle Creek is not an easy collection to read. Not an innocent walk in the woods or a simple hike uphill. McIlwain’s stories are intense, complex, and tightly packed narratives that confront us on nearly every page with blood, poverty, loss, and abuse. Violence is as commonplace in these expert stories as pregnancy and miscarriage. Among heartwarming examples of community support, we become witnesses of harrowing cruelty:

In “Steer,” a teenage boy is traumatized by helplessly watching his father drag a living cow down on its side over the road as some sort of punishment for it running off until the animal is frothing at the mouth and ready for the butcher.

In “Eminent Domain,” a shed that functions as a getaway for local girls and boys to forget they’re stuck becomes a crime scene where two hundred cats are killed by a man who believes they’re evil.

In “Loosed,” an egg farmer turns to illegal yet lucrative cockfights and dogfights to support his family until he discovers that the vile city bettors, hungry for sadistic entertainment, leave him with more cash if he pits his own young sons against one another in bloody fistfights.


Quasi-Bear the Unbearable

Violence inundates us on the news, the streets, our screens—how should we attend to it in literature? How can authors illuminate humanity’s darker sides without leaving readers psychologically disturbed? How do we avoid normalizing atrocities while revealing the banality of evil? How can we write cruelty without inflicting harm?

When done well, violence in fiction can be cathartic. It can also prepare us for situations in real life, un-stun us in advance by exposure. We can even accomplish a sense of justice by the act of paying attention.

What’s important to me when I encounter cruelty in fiction is whether the author manages to show me the awfulness in a nonsensationalized way. Without paralyzing or exciting me. I neither want to put the book away in disgust, nor revel in its gruesomeness. Lovers of genre fiction—horror specifically—may have different expectations, but when I read, I want to be pulled out of my comfort zone without falling into an abyss. I want to quasi-bear the unbearable and come out of it feeling changed.


The Less Said

McIlwain has the gift of writing about cruelty without glorifying it or using it gratuitously. Most of the stories in Sidle Creek are clever mysteries. We’re not drawn in by the savagery of the crime, but by the what, the how, the who, the when, the why.

The aptly titled “The Less Said” begins with a bare though haunting description of a run-down campground that immediately makes me picture the worst, and then makes me examine the workings of my own imagination.

“True hunters would have had a proper gambrel hoist for the deer they hung. They were weekenders. That’s if what they hung on that pulley was a whitetail. That’s if that’s what they crept into the woods to hunt.”

McIlwain doesn’t focus on the perpetrators, the assholes from the city with college degrees, slick cars, and no moral limits. In short paragraphs written from different points of view, she zeroes in on the characters forced to witness the crimes.

“Two of the dancers from Taylor’s Body Shop—one of the only thriving establishments in town—went missing for a whole weekend. […] But no one went looking, and the girls returned, a little banged up—scrapes on their knees, bruises circling their ankles—but back to their same routines.”

Some get a closer look at the violence than they desire and are scared into silence, fearful of what might be done to them if they object against what they see: “…in your short twenty-five years you haven’t yet grown into the person who has the strength you need to stop any of it.” I anguished over how many witnesses looked away and felt gratified to hear the call for justice rise. Even if that justice came as an ethically dubious reckoning:

Hell, it would have been simple to go into the courthouse and ask a few questions, but this was the valley and one never went to the courthouse except to get a marriage license or beagle dog license or do jury duty. More you stir the shit, more it stinks, was what everyone said. So no one was going to ask questions there. Lots of other ways to find out.


Grit and Grace

McIlwain doesn’t write to shock or grab our attention with fear. Nor does she write to preach or cast moral judgments. She describes a community, shows us the people who made that world, who live in it with grit and grace, and who leave it a better or worse place than they found it. She makes me care about her characters first, establishes the kinship I mentioned earlier, then introduces their hardships and cruelties. As a reader, I’m asked to reflect on a society that produces both victims and perpetrators.

What happens to people when they’re raised with guns? When poverty pushes them to the edge? When men in power let the crimes of other men go unpunished? What kind of characters falter in a society where men are taught to “push through, avoid, ignore. Put out fires, work hard, dig deep, build fences and walls to man what you have” (“Steer”)? Where issues concerning the female body are shrouded in silence and mystery? Where there is no room for loss and grief?


Red Boots

The striking stories in Sidle Creek are populated by layered and often ambiguous characters. McIlwain seems to gather up flat rocks from the creek’s slippery bottom to build a stone wall for each person, carefully stacking the rocks, balancing them on top of one another. She writes compassionately in poetic prose and with a rich insider’s vocabulary, intent on defying stereotypes. Kindness and egotism often coexist in her characters, humanizing offenders without absolving them of blame.

When a pretty waitress in a retro cheerleading uniform goes missing in the story “Those Red Boots,” the closeted gay restaurant owner Reese isn’t worried. At least, not until one of her bloodied boots is found and the police question him about his employees and customers, whether he has seen any suspicious behavior. He has confidence in the goodness of others. None of the people he knows would harm one of his girls, whom he thinks of as family. Or would they? He exhausts himself by obsessively mulling over the details. He suspects he may have ignored his misgivings for fear of offending his regulars, the people he relies on for business.

Weeks later, when they finally got around to mowing berms, the township guys found the other red boot in a ditch line four miles from the first. It had gotten caught in the brush mower—part of it ripped to smithereens. There was a note tucked deep in the toe. The law didn’t want to release to the public what was scribbled on it, but when they called Reese in for questioning, this time to the barracks, they showed him the note, hoping he could throw some light on it.

It read, ‘I just go crazy when I see you in those boots.’ Reese’s legs quivered when he read that. His mind flinched.

And not only does his mind flinch because he has an inkling about who the perpetrator might be, it also dawns on him that asking his female staff to wear sexy outfits and perform seductive dances leaves him far less innocent in this drama than he prefers to be.


Red Cover

Blood stands for life and for life spilled. Bleeds are menstrual periods and strokes, the cut of a knife. Red is the color of passion, of love and violence, of warning flags, roses, sexy boots, and courage. The bird on the red cover signifies hope, but all its feathers are black, and it stares forlornly at the ground where one egg, blue with promise, lies cracked and empty.


Green by Design

In her Writer’s Digest craft article “The Set List: How to Order Short Stories in a Collection,” McIlwain confesses that she uses the tool of story sequencing to subsume the more harrowing parts of her collection into a larger, more nuanced narrative. “I was sure of one thing: After expecting someone to read a book that included some tough stories about grief, loss, violence, regret, I wanted to offer a hopeful ending, one that signaled growth and expansion. The final word in my collection is the word ‘green.’ That was by design.”


Four Flat-Chested Nerdy Girls

There are many “green” patches in Sidle Creek, small and large. Hopeful beginnings lurk on the other side of tragic endings. Beauty can be born from brutal events. People persevere:

We feel reassured when feared fathers are summoned to grant the school principal permission to give their misbehaving kids the dreaded “wood,” only to hear these fathers begging for benign detention instead.

We feel gratified when an elderly woman, dragging up her memories, experiences remorse for having stolen a candy bar from a gas station’s kind attendant so many years ago.

We feel the magic of community care in the story “You Four Are the One,” in which four flat-chested nerdy girls team up to become the ideal caregiver for an anxious pregnant woman under strict bedrest. They assist her in any way they can, even if that means dancing with her handsome husband to James Taylor songs.

“We’d actually helped save Cinta Johns and her baby. Something bound to die had actually lived.”


Beyond Binary Thinking

Can we overcome violence with tenderness? Cruelty with resilience? Is that what McIlwain is trying to tell us? Not at all. Trauma might bring people together or make them grow, but violence and tenderness are not opposites that neatly cancel each other out. In fact, opposites are hard to find in this powerful collection. Divisions between female and male, care of animals and hunting, human cruelty and the impersonal ruthlessness of nature, do not apply. They exist side by side simultaneously, leaning toward one another in a near harmony of moderation or away from one another in extremes.

The widowed mathematician, for example, who initially feared the feral, later tries to dissolve the difference between inside and out, between living with and living inside of nature, between life and death. He attempts to lure his beloved doe, his wife reincarnated, toward him by building her a bulletproof glass enclosure inside his home.

“She came in closer, ate from his palm as he stood in the threshold chatting away. He was shocked, shaking with delight. How warm her breath on his palm. Her eyes fixed on his. But she didn’t come in.”

Writing beyond oppositions is difficult and not without risk. If an author describes something as neither good nor bad, readers might remain indifferent. Despite attempts by Derrida and the French post-structuralists to lead us beyond binary thinking, our minds still crave the either/or structure. But McIlwain’s stories refuse to give us that. They let us sit with the discomfort ambiguity brings. They bother us with the unbearable in the best possible way.

My blood is not numbed cold when I put down Sidle Creek. Nor is it hot with anger. My blood runs with the same uncanny mixture of fear, understanding, terror, and sympathy that permeates this extraordinary collection. Jolene McIlwain has taken me into a foreign yet familiar country that I felt tempted to dismiss as cruel. But after spending time with the inhabitants of Sidle Creek, I leave that country feeling troubled and enriched.


CLAIRE POLDERS grew up in the Netherlands and now roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and coauthor of one novel in English for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Simon & Schuster). Her short prose was published in Tin House, Triquarterly, and Electric Literature. She’s concurrently working on a novel about the dark Dutch colonial past, a short prose collection, and her first memoir. Learn more about her projects and sign up for her travel newsletter at her website linked above. Find her on Facebook and Instagram @clairepolders.


Featured image by Vincent Branciforti, courtesy of Unsplash.