Salvage. To reclaim, recoup. In an often very subtle way, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan author of 2009 story collection American Salvage (finalist for the National Book Award) saves her characters—and us in the reading. Her characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are not pretty; yet, Campbell provides a modicum of redemption—the American Dream renewed—I’m looking for in the writing of the Rust Belt.
Campbell’s stories center on everyday people with everyday struggles—from farmers to salvage yard workers, meth addicts to the unemployed—striving to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt in the tough Michigan landscape. These stories are what Ruin Porn could do more of: show us the despairing scene and then populate it with characters to care about.
One of Campbell’s young characters, a 14-year old girl (whose story Campbell expands on for her gem of a novel, Once Upon a River), encapsulates the heart of Campbell’s fiction. In “Family Reunion,” the reader understands that the girl will take revenge by shooting the uncle who violated her. One sentence speaks volumes:
She had to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her.
The term “American Dream” has been so overused as to lose its meaning. Researching for my novel-in-progress, a story set just before WWII, I found Made In America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, in which author Jeffrey Louis Decker gives some background on the oft-used phrase:
The term [American Dream] was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams coined it and used it throughout the pages of a book titled The Epic of America. The American Dream is to be understood as an ethical doctrine that is symptomatic of a crisis in national identity during the thirties. The newly invented dream calls out for a supplement to the outmoded narrative uplift, which had lost its moral capacity to guide the nation during the Depression.
So, out of extreme poverty and ruin, the collective American Dream was borne.
Part 1 of 3 of an essay by me (and some of my favorite Rust Belt writers), Rust Belt Girl
The term “Ruin Porn” doesn’t exactly endear this Rust Belt native to the genre of photography.
David Giffels, Akronite (Akron, Ohio) and author of the wonderfully reminiscent, inspiring, and redemptive (though he would take umbrage with that last descriptor) The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, defines Ruin Porn—also called abandonment photography—in his essay, “Pretty Vacant”:
“Ruin Porn is applied mainly to photography of abandoned, decaying urban spaces and has especially been focused on the postindustrial regions … with urban explorers—ranging from amateur point-and-shooters to high-profile artists—trespassing in empty buildings and distressed neighborhoods, documenting what others have ignored.”
Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always enjoyed something like a sibling rivalry. Unlike the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, or Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland and the ’Burgh are too close in size for one to take the other under its wing like a little sister city, or to aspire to big-brother city coolness. So, rivalry it is—or always seemed to be, to this Northeastern Ohio native.
Later this summer, I will travel through (or around) both cities on my way to visit my dad in Port Clinton, Ohio—home of the annual Perch, Peach, Pierogi and Polka Festival. Along my way on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, I will cross a lot of pierogi territory.