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  • Tim Mathis

Review of Trash: A Poor White Journey by Cedar Monroe


Cover image of Trash: A Poor White Journey by Cedar Monroe

Trash by Cedar Monroe: A beautiful, hard book


I used to be a minister and a Christian. When I was a part of that world, here’s my assessment of what people were like: 


Most were normal folks who happened to have been raised in a religious community and saw church as an avenue toward a good life. A few people were genuinely terrible - real predators who were there because church culture makes power easily accessible and people particularly vulnerable. Gross. And a few were as close to saints as humans can get - people who were genuinely principled and committed to putting others’ needs ahead of their own. They were the model few who helped you hold out faith that all of the religious stuff wasn’t just a scam.


One of those near saints was Cedar Monroe, a person I met when we were both young, in our 20s. We were both in the process of discernment for ordination in the Episcopal Church. I flamed out (and wrote a book about it), but they carried on, went to seminary, and started a ministry among the unhoused population in Grays Harbor, Washington. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen them, but I heard that they were publishing a book about their experiences, so I asked if I could be an advance reader. The book is called Trash: A Poor White Journey.


Cedar’s life has been a lot different from mine, and probably a lot different from yours. In fact, their experience is probably a lot different from anyone you know. That must make for a lot of stress, but also good memoir. At heart, that’s what Trash is. 


Cedar tells their story of growing up poor and fundamentalist, mainly in Grays Harbor. Their parents were struggling, frustrated, and poor. They were also a part of the Quiverful movement, where the brand identity is a rigid commitment to family expansion and procreation. Cedar read a lot, worked through questions around gender and sexuality, and left the culture they were raised in. 


At the beginning of the book, Cedar draws a comparison to J.D. Vance’s story in Hillbilly Elegy, and the parallel is obvious to some degree. To make his escape from poverty, Vance started in the military and then went to Yale. Monroe went a church route. After becoming an Episcopalian during the period when we knew each other, Cedar was approved to pursue ordination and went off to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and took some courses at Harvard. Like Vance, they were a fish out of water in upper crust New England, struggling to fit in alongside the privilege and moneyed culture that’s pervasive among Episcopalians, and particularly seminarians. 


After his Ivy League experience, J.D. Vance went to work for a hedge fund and became a mascot for the uber-wealthy. Monroe, on the other hand, went back home to Grays Harbor to try to make a meaningful difference. They started a ministry working primarily with folks living in a modern shanty town, squatting at “The River” - a stretch of disused land along the Chehalis in Aberdeen. This is where the real meat of the book develops, and it’s what the book is really about.


If you’ve been there, your impression is probably that Grays Harbor is rainy, beautiful, and poor. Aberdeen is an old logging town and a community where most of the jobs have moved away. In ways, it’s not so different from J.D. Vance’s Rust Belt hometown in Middletown, Ohio (which is actually my hometown as well), but it’s a particular brand of depressing. The proximity to wealth highlights the poverty. Washington is the third richest state in the country with a GDP per capita of $90,000 - which would place it above every country in the world outside of a few oil states and small tax havens. In Grays Harbor, the average income is well less than half that. The grey and rain add an element of seasonal depression. The boom and bust nature of logging and fishery work creates a cycle of raised (and then dashed) hopes. Kurt Cobain is from there originally. It’s a hard place.


Cedar’s work in Grays Harbor took on a Catholic Worker-style incarnationalism - living among the poor, and doing the fundamental stuff of on-the-ground activism. Helping people with food and shelter. Praying for people who rarely experience care from people with power. Leading funerals for those who die on the streets and don’t have contactable family. Visiting people as they cycle in and out of prison. Standing between cops and homeless people during ruthless camp sweeps.


It’s heavy stuff, obviously, but the real strength of the book is the picture it gives of a community. This isn’t exactly a story about homelessness as a social problem, although Monroe does include a lot of interesting history and sociology to help explain how we got to where we are. It’s a survey of stories about what human beings do when they’re shoved into an untenable situation without resources to escape it. There’s hope and humor, but there’s nothing rose-colored here. The book is full of likable people making bad decisions, and seriously mentally ill people living in squalor trying to survive. Or addicts in a cycle. Or abused people abusing others. Some, against the odds, climb out. More often, they die young or continue to drift along through trauma after trauma.


The book revolves around the theme of “white trash,” and it’s a picture of a mostly white community, for sure. However, Monroe ties white poverty to bigger themes. They talk about creating literal connections between the community along the River and the national Poor People’s Campaign, and tell stories about the connections that develop between the poor white people in Grays Harbor and the poor indigenous people who’ve lived in the area for time immemorial. They talk about philosophical similarities with movements in poor African-American communities and the challenges of uniting these poor communities into a shared movement to create political change.


As a discussion of poverty in America, there’s nothing particularly pat or blindly hopeful here, but there’s a lot that feels very real. To me that’s more useful: Here’s the problem. Here are some solutions (which all seem like long shots). In the meantime this is what people are going through: their homes are bulldozed, their towns hate them, and they can’t get out even if they want to. The cycle is getting worse. Locals threaten and harass them. Police shuffle them off, but to where? 


What it feels like, as opposed to Hillbilly Elegy, is an honest picture of reality in the United States, and a realistic assessment of how much work it will take to change it. It’s a description of the real community that forms in the midst of dire poverty despite the challenges - the positive character of the people living in places like The River, and the barriers (personal and structural) to escaping the muck that sucks people down time and again. It’s a stark picture of the complex set of problems creating a uniquely American issue - massive amounts of extreme poverty alongside the world’s highest concentration of wealth. 


It’s one of those books that you finish and need to sit with your feelings for a bit. There’s a vague sense of hope, but it feels like the sort of hope you hold out because what else can you do? And it’s not a hero narrative for Monroe as someone who’s trying to make a difference. It’s a story about how hard all of this is to deal with.


Trash is a beautifully written story that hits on big, relevant themes. I’m excited to see how this book does. It’s well worth a read, particularly for people interested in the intersectional struggle against poverty in the USA, or those wondering why so many homeless people are around, and what it’s like to be one of them.



And for a bit of shameless self-promotion, if you like Trash, you'll probably also like I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation.

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