Telling the Working-class Stories of Rural Michigan: A Review of “Enough to Lose”

RS Deeren’s short story collection “Enough to Lose” paints an honest picture of rural, working-class life in the isolated Thumb region of Michigan. Interweaving recurring characters and landmarks, the book asks what it means for residents to be in this space, and answers why it’s important to have their stories written. The opinions expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official organizational stance. Cover graphic by Caitlin Evans and Ruth Chang for Midstory.

When asked about his background, RS Deeren’s first instinct is to describe the setting of his upbringing: rural isolation and working-class struggle. This view of identity — inseparably forged by geography and social class — permeates throughout his short story collection, “Enough to Lose,” published in 2023 by Wayne State University Press.

The collection features nine short stories that take place in Tuscola County, a rural region in the “Thumb” of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The narrative spans from the 1980s to present day, following recurring motifs and characters navigating the uneasy — and at times devastating — terrain of natural disasters and human connection. 

Throughout all the stories, a noticeable solitude looms over Tuscola County. Growing up in the Thumb himself, Deeren was acutely aware of the isolation that the peninsula’s dead-end geography produces.

“It makes being there a very intentional thing,” Deeren said. “To go to these rural, isolated spaces … you’re going there for a very specific reason: It’s to keep the world away from you to find the ‘simple life.’”

But for those born in the region, the Thumbbody life chooses them — “Enough to Lose” reveals that the simple life is not so simple after all, and unravels the complexities of its characters’ lives with care and realism. Deeren drew inspiration from authors like Bonnie Jo Campbell and Matt Bell, who have also detailed the experiences of working-class people in Michigan. He feels that reading literature like theirs gave him permission to write literary fiction about his own town, with all its idiosyncrasies and untold stories.

“These folks deserve to be talked about and written about,” he said.

The realism that Deeren puts on the page stems from his own experience as a “Thumbody.” The recurring Bucky’s Bridge, which serves as a site of tragedy throughout the collection, is based on a real bridge that was iconic in the author’s own life; many of the jobs held by characters in the book are drawn from his own experiences, like growing up as a deer hunter or mowing the lawns of bank repossessions; the book begins in the grief of natural disaster with which Deeren’s family, too, is familiar.

“The Mirror” opens the collection with a full-force battle between the Michigan land and its stewards during the Great Flood of 1986 — the worst flooding disaster in 50 years, ultimately costing between $400 and $500 million in damages.

The story follows a couple who have just moved into — and lost — their house along the Cass River during the flood. But, as the opening paragraph stresses, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s zone designation causes them to be ineligible for insurance coverage, rendering their loss of assets and possessions nothing more than “memories floating downriver.”

“My family does live on that river, and the FEMA-designated floodplain is 10 yards away from their house, which means they don’t qualify for affordable flood insurance,” Deeren said. “It speaks volumes towards insurance companies: the way that this country is run like a business and not in service of the people on the margins who really need it.”

Although fictionalized in this literary work, the experience of trying to survive on the peninsula is a familiar story for some Tuscola County readers — and a story collection about the Thumb wouldn’t be complete without a nod to a popular livelihood and pastime in the region: deer hunting. 

In 2022, four of the five Thumb counties ranked among the top 10 Michigan counties for harvesting the most deer. Drawing upon his own experience of the hunt, Deeren fleshes out the stakes of rural hunting communities in the Thumb and how they reflect complex community relationships.

“I wanted to take to task ‘rich versus poor’ and ‘subsistence hunters versus trophy hunters’ and how the land and the animals that populate it outside of humans are seen differently,” Deeren said. “[Deer] are seen as trophies by folks who just use the land for their own benefit. And then they’re seen as vital lifelines for those who don’t have that privilege, that financial capital.”

In the sixth story, “Her, Guts and All,” tensions come to a head when wealthy landowners try to force a widow — whose small and soggy property slopes toward the river — into an agreement to withhold hunting deer until they grow to a prize-worthy size. A rift is formed when the widow and her son, who rely upon the deer for sustenance throughout the winter, cannot agree.

“Worth … has got as many meanings as there are people alive,” the widow says.

As carefully as he thinks through the portrayal of the working-class experience within the collection, Deeren also considers the real-life impact of his literature on those individuals today. 

“The people who know what isolated rural living is like and that people misrepresent them regularly, or don’t even think of them at all — I want those people to read it; I think that they’re the ones who need it,” Deeren said.

He hopes that the short story form will make his work more accessible for a working-class audience. With shorter, easily digestible narratives, the collection can be slowly chipped away at — a necessity for readers with little to no free time outside of strenuous work.

“They don’t have the time to do that: to read a novel,” Deeren said. “They’re exhausted. They’re exhausted from working 12 hours on their feet — manual labor outside in the sun or in a GM factory.”

But the short story form affords more than just accessibility. It also allows Deeren to root for those he writes about, and to break down stereotypes of rural communities. Having lived away from the region for 10 years, distance exposed him to a breadth of new perspectives — although not always accurate ones. For instance, he said that a lot of outsiders hold the idea that people in rural, isolated places all “represent the same thing.”

In his writing, Deeren conversely shows a technicolor array of experiences by bringing us earnestly and intimately into the worlds of multiple characters throughout the nine different stories.

“There’s so many different types of people that make this place their home,” Deeren said.

Indeed, within the same cover binding, we see Michigan from the lens of a husband mowing lawns for cash to provide for his nearly-pregnant wife, an older man patrolling the dark roads around his property because law enforcement won’t, a female bartender on her third name change to reshape her identity, a tragic young artist determined to seek justice. 

These lives, although vastly different, are not separate. They are welded together by their attempts at making an honest go within the quiet borders of Tuscola County. And in true small town fashion, these characters consistently brush up against each other’s narratives.

“What I’ve learned is that it’s not that everybody knows everybody,” Deeren said. “It’s that everybody knows somebody who knows something about somebody else.”

Image by Jessica Johnston courtesy of RS Deeren.

What this leaves is space for rumors and incomplete stories. Deeren artfully weaves these into the collection, leaving hints from wood etchings to familiar name-drops to the crossing of the same bridge. Through the vignettes, he paints the real ephemerality of interconnected lives, dropping us out of a character’s life as quickly as he lets us in.

The force of connection is present both in form and content — but not just for those in Tuscola County. While a Thumbody may have a special appreciation for the stories and their setting, the themes presented in “Enough to Lose” extend far wider than the Michigan peninsula, or even the Midwest itself. In a colorful array of human stories, imbued with rural geography and the working class life, Deeren unites the experiences of Thumbodies with stories echoed by those across the country.

“There is a deep humanity that is shared across regions and across urban-rural connections,” Deeren said. “The hyper-corporatization of rural spaces, the overdevelopment of rural spaces … That’s not rural or urban: That’s capitalism, and that affects all of us.”

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