Publisher : Random House (October 12, 2021)
Hardcover : 432 pages
“American Made What Happens to People When Work Disappears” is, at its best, a story about factories closing in the Midwest and work disappearing to Mexico and China. It is the story about what happens to the proud people who work the heavy machines and are forced to train their foreign replacements as the factories in their hometown close and work disappears like water circling and then washing down the drain. Indianapolis, where the story takes place, was a center of manufacturing where people with a high school education could get a high-paying job and take care of their families. But, in a story all too familiar, those factories keep closing and the jobs keep going away.
The story centers around three workers in a ball bearing plant, Rexnord, where Shannon, Wally, and John find themselves, each one of the three having faced struggles through life such as having children as teenagers, jail time, broken marriages, and domestic abuse. None of the three are priveleged and none have ever had it easy. Shannon, for instance, got a factory job in a male-dominated environment as a means of escaping a violent domestic abusive relationship. Wally and John similarly fought their way to be accepted at the factory and in the union (for John).
The author is obviously talented and her craft is evident throughout these three interlaced stories that all end with the factory closing and no equivalent work available. However, unlike Mike Rowe, the author here does not simply let these three stories speak for themselves and that is where the narrative falters. The author, a Harvard-educated New York Times reporter, left the Upper Westside of Manhattan to journey to Indiana and find out why blue-collar Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016. It is evident from the start that the author looks down on these uneducated people as hillbillies and can’t fathom why unionized workers who have seen their jobs moved offshore for cheaper labor or find themselves now competing with illegal immigrants who are willing to undercut union wages to survive would vote for someone who seemed to understand their plight. Thus, at times, the book was more about the author’s political leanings than about the three people who were supposed to be at the center of the story.
The other point where the book falters is that the author constantly refers to the three people by their races even when it is not necessary to the narrative. John is constantly referred to as a White man and Wally as a Black man rather than simply as individuals. Ultimately, the author argues in the final chapters that, no matter what these people struggles are dealing with poverty, job losses, domestic abuse, or raising a special needs child, those struggles are unimportant in comparison to their skin color and the lessons on critical race theory that the final chapters convey.
What could have been a top-notch book about how tough life is when the factory closes and the jobs go away becomes nothing more than a New York Times editorial page that focuses on other issues, not on the difficulties that come with the loss of high-paying skilled factory jobs.