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sidle creek

An NPR Book of the Year

Library Journal 
Best Short Story Collection of the Year

Set in the timbered and mine-bruised landscape of western Pennsylvania’s Appalachian hills, a tender exploration of small-town life told by a brilliant new voice in fiction . . .


With stories that take place in diners and dive bars, town halls and bait shops, Jolene McIlwain skillfully and lyrically interrogates the myths and stereotypes of the small, close-knit, mining, mill, and farming towns where she grew up. 

While the finely etched stories explore themes of class, work, health, and trauma, the wild beauty of the natural world weaves its way in as the vulnerable source of the town’s livelihood. 

With an alchemic blend of taut prose, gorgeous imagery, and deep sensitivity for all of the living beings within its pages, Sidle Creek will sit snugly on bookshelves alongside Annie Proulx, Joy Williams, Louise Erdrich, and the other great storytellers concerned with people in troubled landscapes just trying to get by.

Cover Designed by Sofia Demopolos

praise for sidle creek

“The 22 stories in Sidle Creek charm, surprise, and convey a deep love of the people and place McIlwain has long called home…beautiful prose.”

—NPR, Review

“[A] stunning new collection of short fiction that presents a region known for hunting, fishing, fracking and Rolling Rock beer in all of its tender and terrifying complexity…thrilling narrative[s]…lyrical…luminous…”

—AP Wire, Review

“Among many possible superlatives, it's this deep feeling of shared humanity that makes Sidle Creek a stunning debut.”

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Review


“[An] impressive debut collection spotlights the hard-edged people who call rural western Pennsylvania home... McIlwain’s reverent regard for the natural world makes her a worthy successor of Annie Dillard."

—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Riveting debut collection... a showcase of vivid, empathetic stories that defy the stereotypes about her [McIlwain] rural Western Pennsylvania... Sidle Creek is a rare gem, a compelling blend of nature and humanity perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and Daisy Johnson's Fen."

—Shelf Awareness, Review


“In a lesser writer’s hands, Jolene McIlwain’s hardscrabble characters could become one-dimensional, stereotypic, but her empathy is such that we never doubt our kinship to them and their ultimate concerns. These stories are artfully constructed  and the writing vivid and precise, often poetic but never pretentious. Sidle Creek is one of the best story collections I’ve read in a long time.” 

—Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of  SERENA

“She can write. Not an easy story but a deeply satisfying one.”

—Dorothy Allison, author of the bestselling novel BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA

Jolene McIlwain is a master of the vividly imagined natural world and of complicated characters, young and old. Meals burned and letters went unanswered as I waited to find out if the baby would survive, which boy would win the fight, whether the deer had escaped in these suspenseful stories. Sidle Creek is a marvelous debut.” 

—Margot Livesey, New York Times best-selling author of  THE BOY IN THE FIELD 

“In SIDLE CREEK, characters don’t fall in love, they unearth it. And that’s what these stories do, they unearth layer upon layer of love for life and all its hills and valleys. These are stories in which textures are beagle-soft; a creek can heal or at least make you believe it can; a calf can be a trigger to a violent memory and the cutest little thing; a person can be a quartersawn board, which is to say stable, or they can be rift-sawn, which is to say not. These stories show life in all of its beauty and its horror.” 

—Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of  THE TROJAN WAR MUSEUM  

“Heir to the immortal ruralists of the American short story’s halcyon era, Jolene McIlwain crafts fiction so close to the bone, with such an unflinching fearlessness of the soul’s dark night, that she will restore your faith in what the short story can achieve in the hands of a born expert. Sidle Creek is a debut worthy of alignment with the best of Dorothy Allison and Daniel Woodrell.” 

—William Giraldi, author of  HOLD THE DARK 

“Welcome to the Pennsylvania of Jolene McIlwain, a world of strip mines, cockfights, deer hunters, Rolling Rock beer, and a cast of characters as memorable as any from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. McIlwain’s debut story collection, Sidle Creek, shimmers with the plain-spoken, and yet luminous, portrayals of its rural characters whose lives are made up of moments of grit and grace. How does she do it? How does she turn the ordinary into something magical, universal, and eternal? These are stories to savor for all they have to tell us about being alive.” 

—Lee Martin, author of the Pulitzer Prize Finalist, THE BRIGHT FOREVER  



Jolene McIlwain’s Sidle Creek is a debut collection of stories that reads like the work of a seasoned master. Like Chekhov, she writes about her characters with both a cold eye and a warm heart, and as a result they and their conflicts and traumas come vividly and complexly to life.  And her prose is so rich with sensory imagery that it allows us to see through the words as through a window into the world she describes, and that world, the brutal and beautiful world of western Pennsylvania’s Appalachian plateau, is so compelling it becomes virtually a character itself.  This is a book, and an author, that should not be missed.” 


Sidle Creek is a beautifully drawn collection that turns away from nothing in the pursuit of hard truths. Atmospheric and thrumming with life, these stories offer the ultimate gift—a chance to look within and ask our own difficult questions, and if we're lucky, offer ourselves the same hard-won understanding we can’t help but have for these unforgettable characters. These are the stories that haunt them, the ones they can’t help but tell, and that energy radiates off every page in evermore surprising and heartbreaking ways. Sidle Creek aches with the particular beauty of grief and is written with remarkable grace."  

—Chelsea Bieker, author of GODSHOT and HEARTBROKE 


“There's a subterranean wisdom threading through the ground of these stories, creating deep links, pulling stunning parts into a still more stunning whole. Jolene McIlwain gives us the kind of truths that can only come from knowing her subjects--people, animals, and landscape alike--entirely and truly, in all their darkness and light. An extraordinary debut from a writer of rare insight and lyric power.” 

—Clare Beams, author of  THE ILLNESS LESSON 


"Author Jolene McIlwain shines in this debut collection of short stories showcasing her profound vision, authenticity, and compassion. These stories and characters will sear themselves in your mind and heart forever, such is the beauty and precision of McIlwain's prose, the deftness of her storytelling chops. Like Annie Proulx, this author intimately knows the places and people of her stories. Knows their secrets, their histories, their heartaches, and all-too-human failings. McIlwain brings to vivid life the unique world of rural Appalachia with wisdom and candor and an uncanny ear for dialogue. A masterful collection, Sidle Creek is only the beginning for a stunning writer we'll be hearing much more from in years to come." 

—Kathy Fish, author of  WILD LIFE: COLLECTED WORKS 


“The stories in Jolene McIlwain’s Sidle Creek are dark and painful, atmospheric and heartbreakingly honest. Filled with characters struggling to survive in a setting as alive and rich as any I’ve seen, these stories are hard to read and harder to put down. I loved it!”

— Kelly Braffet, author of SAVE YOURSELF 

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