I'm a product of the American Rust Belt. Having grown up in the 1980s, I watched family members lose their jobs and friends leave the little northwestern Pennsylvania town where I lived. As teenagers, we dreamed of leaving and never coming back. And some did leave. And some of us stayed.
I was one who stayed. Well, I kinda stayed. I left to go to school (there were no local colleges in the area) and returned and then took a job just across the state border. (To be honest, my 20s was a series of small moves around three counties -- too long of a story to retell here.) I now live 45 minutes from my hometown.
In The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels, the author explores the history of his own hometown, Akron, Ohio through both memoir and observation, making personal commentaries about those who decide to stay in their struggling towns and cities. His essays are both humorous and insightful, and as a reader I found myself nodding "yes" on numerous occasions in response to his insights about the landscape and people of the Rust Belt.
The main focus of Giffels' collection is, of course, Akron, Ohio, and this can be seen as he explores the specific history of his hometown, notably discussing what happens to a city when its main industries leave, often leaving a city without an identity. In the case of Akron, these industries were Goodrich and Firestone, thus making Akron's nickname, "The Rubber City" a bit problematic. He further explores his hometown's identity by focusing on famous people including Lebron James, the music group Devo, and Chrissie Hynde.
Still, Giffels' collection doesn't just focus on other people; many of his stories are his own, cataloging his own stories and experiences. One piece titled "Popular Stories for Boys" chronicles his love of reading and his relationship with a book store owner. Another piece, "Lake Effect" describes the crazy (and sometimes harsh) weather conditions of northern Ohio.
My favorite essay, however, is titled "Do Not Cry For Me, Arizona" where he discusses the perception that some believe the term "Rust Belt" is overused, dated, and even a bit tired. To this, Giffels responds, "We need to be the Rust Belt. We've paid so dearly for that designation that we deserve to have it as our own and to allow it to represent the fullness of its story. It's our blues."
I loved The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, namely because I am from the Rust Belt (although, a much more rural part), and as a reader I could see the stubborn pride that shined through Giffels' stories and recollections.
6/13/2014 0 Comments
Anyone who regularly keeps up with my writing (including my book reviews and blog) knows that I love my Pennsylvania working-class landscape. It's been said that Pennsylvania retains its natives more than any other state in the union and I can understand why -- there's something in the coal patches and rust belt remnants that works its way into our skin and never lets go. And it's this "something" that made me pick up Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscape by Bill Conlogue.
Conlogue's book is a series of essays (written as chapters) that explore the history and the land of Anthracite Pennsylvania. In his introduction, he explains that the book is written as "narrative scholarship," a type of writing that is often found troublesome in the academic world for various reasons. Although I was not familiar with this particular term, as I read through the book, I couldn't help but think that Conlogue is writing in a type of creative (or literary) nonfiction, as he blends personal narratives with historical and literary resources. For instance, he often recounts his own personal memories of growing up in dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania or attending a college in coal-mining country and then blends these memories with current issues regarding the environment.
Conlogue's main goal is to explore a specific place (in this case, eastern Pennsylvania) and in essence, celebrate that place whether it's through personal stories, historical documents, poetry, and recent environmental studies. He explains, "To assume that every place can be any place is to endanger all places." Indeed, every chapter takes on a specific part of eastern Pennsylvania. For instance, in one chapter titled "Merwin and Mining" Conlogue investigates the trauma of coal mining -- both on humans and on the land -- using the poetry of W.S. Merwin and Jay Parini as lenses for looking at history and landscape. In another chapter, he discusses the landscape scars of the past including leftover mine debris in culm banks and acid mine drainage. (He also cites many poems by Sherry Fairchok, who wrote the book, Palace of Ashes, is one of my all time favorite contemporary poetry books).
It seems that when studying the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania, that the state's coal mining history often takes center stage. Conlogue, however, spends considerable time examining the dairy/farming industry -- a part of Pennsylvania's working-class world that is often overlooked. Because he grew up on a dairy farm, he is able to offer personal stories and insights into the world of the Pennsylvania farm. He also places his family's farm in the context of history, researching and explaining the slowly disappearing family farm, often through the building and demolishing of the barn. (When I was growing up, the barn that shouted the slogan, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco was a common sign; now, I have to note that both the slogans and the barns themselves are slowly disappearing).
For my readers who love the Pennsylvanian world as much as I do, this is a book that belongs on your bookshelf! For those of you who do not necessarily have an interest in Pennsylvanian land and history, that is okay, because Conlogue's book is a must read for anyone who believes that there is a link between a land and its people.
For more information about this book, see The Pennsylvania State University Press's website, which also features other review of Conlogue's work.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.