For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.

“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.

Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?

It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.

Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.

From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”

What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols. 

In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.

The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.

What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear: 

I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.

In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.

What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.

Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.

Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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Running for Home

$18 Bottom Dog Press

9 thoughts on “My review of RUNNING FOR HOME, Edward McClelland’s debut novel

    1. Thank you, John, for reading and commenting! I also learned a lot about running from this novel. It reminded me how popular running was in the 70s and 80s. So many superstar runners I’d forgotten about or learned about for the first time. In one of the book blurbs, another writer said the book motivated him to run three miles. Only ice cream cake or a giant bear chasing me could do that–ha. But it was a good read.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sounds like another great slice of Americana. I particularly liked the running quote you pulled and any mention of my favorite 80s video game wins points by me.

    I find myself romanticizing that time, when life was simpler, when we were the good guys, not the baddies. Of course, coming out of the Vietnam era, it was a bit more complicated, but still, we were proud to be American.

    It wasn’t until I left that I realized many things about American culture, but one of them, was how much we’re a car culture. Hate to use a Japanese brand as an example, but you’ll get the point. My ex’s father said he visited the Nissan plant in Alabama (?) and he noticed something peculiar about the parking lot, took him a while but finally, he spotted it — not a single oil or gas stain. The parking lot was spotless!

    Made me think of the pride companies took/take in their products. And naturally, the impression we want to give.

    Good work, Rebecca! [And HBD :)]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, Galaga–yep, still fantastic!

      I must romanticize the 80s too, because one of my kids is always saying he’d like to live then. I think he’s drawn to the more feral way we kids operated then. And, yes, I think you’re right that we Americans felt like we were mostly on the side of good. I also think we weren’t as savvy about capitalism and advertising. Now we know we’re pawns of the system, even if we don’t always care.

      And car culture. I imagine you really see it in stark relief living in Thailand now.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Lani–you’re always so thoughtful–and for the birthday wishes. It’s a working day for me but I plan to enjoy myself after COB!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I just passed Lordstown on my way home from my niece’s grad party. My dad mentioned that when he was in college he worked at the Atlas Cement Company. The pay was enough to cover his summer needs and the entire next year at college– tuition and board. Wow. I just read a fantastic book I think you’d love. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Kelly! I’m waiting for a Lordstown local to chime in and tell me what the plant is going to be up to, now. It will be making something and providing some jobs to the area, though nothing like what it used to. Ah, the old days of good wages and reasonable college tuition. Isn’t that amazing!? Ah, that Haig book has been on my radar. Thank you for the recommendation–now I know it’ll be a goodie! (P.S. Finished my WIP draft and will give it one pass before sending it on to you to beta–woot!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m definitely going to check this book out. It has a few parallels for me. I used to run cross country in high school and I went to high school in a small town in Michigan. Thanks for a great review. You’ve definitely sparked my interest. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I definitely thought of you when I read it–because I know you run and are in MI. It’s funny, I had forgotten how huge track and marathon-running stars were in the 80s. The MC in RUNNING FOR HOME is as obsessed as any young basketball player today would be with Lebron James. And the wins and losses by just fractions of a second–pretty exciting. I appreciate you reading and commenting. Happy Monday from my vacay in Ohio!

    Like

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