When Carolyn Chute first introduced the poor whites of rural Maine in The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985, her tone was ambivalent to the point of possibly being derisive. Such authorial irony does not muddy The School on Heart's Content Road, which takes sympathy to the level of pure identification. Instead of just giving us the poor as they are, Chute's panoramic perspective prods us to ask why people are poor. Her fictional community used to be self-contained; now the state's intrusions are determinative.
Like John Dos Passos, Chute depicts history unfolding in individual destiny, through multiple points of view. There is hyperimaginative, biracial, 6 1/2-year-old Jane Meserve, whose mother has been imprisoned on trumped-up drug charges, and scrawny 15-year-old Mickey Gammon, whose brother has kicked him out. The two end up at Gordon St. Onge's Settlement, a commune where "the Prophet" lives with his many wives, where the defeated and abandoned find refuge, and ideas about alternative energy and independent schooling are implemented.
Paralleling his "brother" Gordon is Rex York, leader of the Border Mountain Militia, fond of guns and skeptical of Gordon's idealism, even as both resent corporate capitalism. The teenage girls at the Settlement form the True Maine Militia, which embarks on a sort of siege of the state capital, railing against corporate lobbyists. Also in the cast are government operatives monitoring Gordon and Rex, suspicious neighbors and reporters eager to depict apocalyptic doings.
Chute herself is closely identified with the militia movement, which for her amounts to strong economic populism. She demolishes our illusions about the kind of people attracted to militias; her poor people are doing something about their alienation from consumerist success, whether or not we agree with their ideology.
Anis Shivani's book, ''Anatolia and Other Stories,'' will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2009.