A conversation around CINDERLAND, a memoir by Amy Jo Burns (yes, spoilers)


I don’t know about you, but I find the memoir in general a tough nut to crack. I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre to read. As a fiction writer, I’m an escapist–I admit that too–always seeking new opportunities to inhabit the lives of fictional others.

The memoir also poses challenges for the reviewer: how to best critique a plotting of events in a life that really happened; how to critique a cast of characters who are actual people?

Then there are my own personal memoir hang-ups, which say much more about my issues–as a “good girl” raised on Rust Belt values (more on that later)–than the genre’s. As in:

  1.  Talking (or writing) about oneself is evidence of vanity.
  2.  Talking about one’s successes is risky business, as in you don’t want to jinx yourself.
  3.  Talking about one’s trials only invites more trials, as in, you think you’ve had it bad, I’ll show you bad; also as in, good girls bear their crosses with (quiet) grace or suffer the consequences.

Amy Jo Burns knows a lot about grace–and about suffering–and she has written a graceful memoir, one I can’t quite review but find myself drawn to write about.

Chances are good I drove through “Cinderland” this past weekend, as the dust continues to swirl around the latest in a long line of sexual-assault-by-public-figure revelations. But the title of Burns’s memoir isn’t an actual place but a figurative (and arguably huge) one.

Cinderland tells the story of Burns’s formative years in [fictionally-titled] Mercury, Pennsylvania, a town in the western part of the state that–like so many others–revered the Rust Belt trinity: Father, Steel, and Holy Football.

Only, Burns grew up in the 1990s, well after the demise of almighty steel, when Mercury is at best a “sleepy” town, at worst a toxic one. The year Burns turns 10, the town is startled awake when the beloved town piano teacher (called Mr. Lotte–one of many biblical references) was accused of sexually assaulting his girl students. Seven young female accusers came forward.

Burns, a student of Mr. Lotte’s, lied when questioned, saying he hadn’t touched her. She (and likely many others) lied to protect her abuser–and herself, doing her best throughout her girlhood and teenage years to keep up good-girl appearances. This is all while planning her escape from the town she loved: a place she was both a part of and apart from.

The allegations tear the town in two–Mr. Lotte’s accusers on one side, his champions on the other. In the end, Mr. Lotte, while maintaining his innocence, pleads guilty in court, for the town’s sake, he says. He serves a short sentence.

Besides great personal tragedy and the turmoil at keeping and finally revealing her secret, Burns delves into a universal tragedy, one that goes far beyond one provincial Rust Belt town. This could be Anywhere, U.S.A.

Young Burns is an adept performer, taking on the mantle of good Christian, girlfriend, actress, cheerleader… The layers of artifice are many, like the layers of tulle in a tutu. (Oh yeah, she was also a dancer, like another Rust Belt girl I know.) Burns graduated second in her high school class–an amazing achievement–but even then is playing a sort of supporting role, in her own life.

The push and pull between the girl psyche and the astute young woman narrating her own history is palpable–and heartbreaking. If I were to review this book, I’d find Cinderland a must-read, especially for the young adult crowd–male and female. I’d find the portrayal of an American girlhood powerful; the portrayal of the setting a bit weak. (That’s not proud Rust Belt Girl talking here–the setting was often filtered through the author, not the narrator, rendering it less powerful than if it had been shown through the perspective of the teenage girl.)

At the end of the memoir is where I felt Burns most artfully illustrated the universal good girl conundrum: stay and pretend or risk an escape. Spoiler: she does escape, to Cornell, and eventually breaks her silence that is Cinderland.

In the last chapter, Burns takes on the town, a sort of horrible Greek chorus, that failed her and so many others:

I did not want to tell this story. I can picture the broad-shouldered men who used to work in town: spreading asphalt in the summer, hunting buck in the winter. I can hear them say, Shut your goddamn trap, will you? Not because they feel the need to keep secrets, but because they still believe in the innocence of a man I once protected.

Who do you think you are, anyway? they’d say. You hightailed it outta here the first chance you got. Some hotshot you are.

And they’d be right. My memories of this place are cinders floating in the air…


For further reading:

Interview with Amy Jo Burns about Cinderland: http://beltmag.com/interview-amy-jo-burns-author-cinderland/









Process Video – Rust Belt Arcana

In advance of the publishing of RUST BELT ARCANA by Belt Publishing, check out this process video from artist David Wilson. Music by the band Eternities from Kent, Ohio.

David Wilson

I made a little video documenting the process of one piece from Rust Belt Arcana, a new book by Matt Stansberry and I, out on Belt Publishing in the fall of 2018. Music by Eternities.

Rust Belt Arcana Process Video from David Wilson on Vimeo.

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What our hometown’s brand says about us and a re-post from Belt Magazine

Cuyahoga River on fire, 1969. (Image courtesy of imgarcade.com.)

If there’s a city that is the butt of more jokes than Cleveland, I don’t know it. From burning waters (yep, that really happened–a long time ago) to crash-and-burn sports teams, my native city could use a re-brand. Or, so say the branders.

In this digital age, when we worry about our personal brand–imagine our grandparents pausing to consider what message they were sending with a profile pic?!–cities and states are also fighting to be presented in the best light.

Branding is such a big deal that Ohio’s Governor Kasich proclaimed that “Rust Belt” sends the wrong message; he likes “Tech Belt” for Ohio. So far that moniker hasn’t stuck.

My native place is rusty; its past is a bit sullied. Cleveland’s the opposite of slick: a brander’s nightmare. But we’ve been through the wringer (time and again) and come out tougher. Remember the “Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough” t-shirts? The fact that native Clevelanders can wear defeat as a badge of pride, and laugh off the past while striving for a shinier future–that’s what makes me proud of my hometown.

Would you re-brand your hometown? Give it a catchy slogan? What would it be?

From “The Mistake On The Lake” To “Defend Together”: The Long (And Amusing) History Of Trying To Rebrand Cleveland — Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt

As the Cleveland Indians prepare for a postseason run as defending American League champions, fans are showing their support by purchasing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Defend Together.”

Who needs branding when you’ve got this guy? (Image from Beltmag.com.)

Thank you, thank you all, thank yinz

You will be on my Thankful Tree this year.

No matter where you’re from–Rust Belt, Sun Belt, or elsewhere. No matter how you say, thanks, I hope you hear this bit of gratitude.

I delivered this blog in May, and like most five-month-old offspring, it is still in the babbling stage. During this developmental period, I’ve learned a lot about my native Rust Belt, its history and its present, and how it’s portrayed in fiction and nonfiction. I’ve called upon memories of growing up in Ohio–the distinct sounds and tastes that take a girl back home, if just for a moment. I’ve learned how I want to represent my home, creatively. I’ve learned blogging is much more than writing. It’s connecting. And I couldn’t do that without you.

Thanks for following!

Rust Belt Girl (Rebecca)




The Taste of Home


Two words–Tofu Manicotti–were enough to strike fear into the hearts and stomachs of us Moon kids.

Long before the first Whole Foods Market made its way to Ohio, my mom bought into the 80s tofu craze and made it her mission to sneak soy into ordinarily tasty dishes. And so Tofu Manicotti was born. Other health-nutty adventures of hers were more successful. For years, she was a member of the Racoon County Co-op, which saw penny-pinching homemakers like her traveling to Cleveland’s food terminal before dawn to purchase natural foods in bulk. We got our honey from a beekeeper down the road. And Mom’s backyard vegetable garden kept us in zucchini, pepper, and tomato frittatas all summer long.

Before my mom passed away, she made each of us kids a cookbook, in which she hand wrote family recipes we wouldn’t want to forget. (Tofu Manicotti does not appear.) There’s frugal, egg-based dishes, like stratas; Midwestern standards like Ham Loaf and Dried Beef Casserole; an Italian aunt’s sauce and meatballs recipe. And so, these recipes–and memories–I can recreate.

Other dishes I have to return home for: good potato pancakes, homemade pierogi, a real-deal Lake Erie Perch fish fry.

I figured I’m not the only one who hankers for the foods of a Rust Belt upbringing. Turns out, I’m not. Thanks so much to the helpful folks in my *Fiction Writing FB group, who chimed in with their favorite hometown foods–or, in one case, the detestable food of her hometown she just can’t forget. Yep, I’m talking about you, Spam!

Did I forget your favorite hometown food? Reply here, or meet me on my Rust Belt Girl page on FB, where I muse about all things Rust Belt. Next week, I’ll feature a review of the memoir, Cinderland. Read it?

Here’s my uber-scientific survey response, below. Big winners: fish frys and pierogi; runner-up, coneys:

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 11.13.23 AM

*Thanks again to Daniel from Youngstown, Ohio; Chris; Amy from Northwest, Ohio; Adrian; Jules from Michigan; Dean; Brian; Dawn; Pumkin; Marguerite; and Carol, who has been through Erie, Pennsylvania, enough to adopt the local hotdog as her own.

That Hometown Sound

WMMS_logo.svgThe soundtrack to my adolescence and young adulthood in Northeast Ohio was unusual. While my peers were listening to Depeche Mode on the radio or catching a live show at the Grog Shop, I was in the ballet studio. While my high school classmates listened to the CHS band before Friday night football, I was in the ballet studio. Dancing to Miss Jackson (nasty or not) in the Burger King parking lot? Me? Not unless that parking lot had ballet barres and wrap-around mirrors.

You get the picture. Instead of memorizing every word to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic, “Baby Got Back,” I was enduring mandatory games of Name that Tune in the ballet studio. As in: pianist on the baby grand in the corner plays a few bars of classical music and we bun-heads guess the composer and piece. (Tip: Tchaikovsky is always a safe bet when betting on ballet music.)

My personal soundtrack during my formative years–and by extension my entire budding identity–felt terribly inaccurate. On my pathetic playlist: a little Whitney, some Tears for Fears, my parents’ Herb Alpert and Brothers Four records, and a smattering of Russian ballet compositions I couldn’t name.

Forgivable if I lived just anywhere. But I lived outside Cleveland, Ohio, rock ‘n’ roll capital. (Just go with me on that.)

My soundtrack’s saving grace: Cleveland’s rock station, WMMS. Really, I knew I wasn’t cool enough to blare that kind of music, while driving my parent’s Chevy Cavalier through the snow to and from classes and rehearsals, pink tights on, hair in a tight bun. Never could I have sported a t-shirt with the rock station’s mascot, the Buzzard, with the necessary cool-girl aplomb. -6f153e909dd14774

But I would listen to these rockin’ sounds of my city, and that tagline that gets me jazzed even today. Please enjoy this blast from Cleveland radio past:

What is your hometown’s sound? Let’s talk!

Find Rust Belt Girl on FB, too.





AMERICAN RUST, restless ruin: a book review

9781742374772American Rust by Philipp Meyer, reviewed.

Ah, America. Rags to riches. Dream fulfilled country, right?


Without spoiling too terribly much, this is not that book. This is not romance.

American Lit. nerd time-out: in his Criticism and Fiction, realist writer of the 1800s, William Dean Howells, argued that a story where “all grows naturally out of character and conditions is the supreme form of fiction.” Down with the sentimentality of romantic fiction! Realism was best suited to express the spirit of America. Then, real got real-er, and naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser and Jack London showed what happens when natural forces overwhelm us silly humans.

American Rust is real-natural in that way. And I like it. Realism has always appealed to this Rust Belt native for whom romantic lit. often feels at best, false, and at worst, dangerous.

For me, this debut novel’s strengths are in the real and natural way Philipp Meyer’s dark story grows out of the ruinous conditions of its modern Appalachian Pennsylvania setting: post-industry, post steel money, post employment, though still (or again) naturally beautiful.

This is a story of two very different young men from the same place. Isaac is small, awkward, and MIT-smart; Billy is handsome and strong, a former high school football star. One night, the friends get caught up in/perpetrate an act of terrible violence, just as restless Isaac has decided he must head to Stanford to put his genius to work. Post-crime, Isaac makes good on his promise to leave their hometown, and Billy stays. Each man suffers for his decision, Isaac on the road and in train yards where lawlessness reigns, and Billy in prison. The men’s families become entangled in the tragedy, as does the local police chief, Harris, who must weigh his job as a lawman against his love for Billy’s mother, Grace. All suffer in the aftermath of one violent mistake.

Only, the reader knows that the crime is but a single mistake in a long line of mistakes, including the horrible steel-work accident that put Isaac’s father in a wheelchair and Isaac’s mother’s suicide; Billy’s father’s shiftlessness and Billy’s mother’s failures in life and love.

From the start, I was confident that Meyer knows this very real (though a fictional composite) place of Buell, Pennsylvania—it’s flora and fauna, its hills both natural and man-made. This writer understands the steel industry that created and destroyed this place and the tracks and trails and byways that connect the hamlets and towns. I applaud Meyer for many of his passages describing this unique Rust Belt setting in beautiful language:

Leaving the tracks, Isaac followed a small stream up the hillside, a canopy of alder, the bark white against the green of everything else, moss dragging in the clear fast water.

Meyer’s descriptive strengths don’t end outside. His descriptions of the harrowing life inside prison walls are also affecting:

The sun was high and the guards looked down from their towers, M16s against their hips…Beyond the double forty-foot fences and razor wire the Valley was still there in all its greenness but he no longer knew what to make of it…

Setting is a fully-fleshed-out character in this novel—perhaps our most heroic character—so much so that it dictates the development of the people of this post-industrial world.

These are damaged characters in damaged places, lands stripped for humanity’s material gain. And now, it seems, the land is taking back what it lost: where the town steelmill once reigned, it is now partially dismantled and

…stands like an ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil’s tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes criss-crossed the grounds.

An avid deer hunter, Billy becomes the hunted, prey to gangs of thugs behind bars. His mother becomes helpless as a spring lamb, and would starve if the most heroic of the human figures, Harris, didn’t feed her. Isaac’s father, too, is helpless and contemplates suicide. Isaac’s married sister gets caught up in a trap of old feelings for Billy. Really, it’s no surprise that Isaac chose to flee this tragic landscape created by man’s mistakes. In the frequent internal monologue-ing of Isaac, an amateur scientist, we come to understand his lack of agency:

Watch a sunset and feel like you own it but it’s been rising without you for a thousand years.

Still, this is where I was let down, by a writer who didn’t exercise enough control over his characters’ responses to the world around them, a world that is in ruin at least in part because of the characters’ very own doing. Now, that’s dangerous.

When it’s fight or flight time, Isaac hops a train out of town. Then we have part Don Quixote quest, part Huck Finn adventure, part flight of fear, a la The Road. More compelled was I by the characters who remained penned in by the situations of home they had created for themselves. Maybe that was the point. The young and smart of the Rust Belt take flight, while their unlucky peers stay and fight alongside their elders digging their own graves. But it made for an unsympathetic main character in Isaac, no matter how smart.

For that reason, I was thankful for the frequent point of view switches that allowed me to journey with Billy in prison, with his mother and Harris in their fraught on-again-off-again relationship, and with Isaac’s father and sister, who are left to question who, exactly, Isaac is. I’m still not sure.

Like other reviewers, I was bothered by Isaac’s habit of referring to himself in the first person. I also didn’t see the point of the fragmented way the internal thoughts of characters were presented, when much of Meyer’s prose is so rhythmically pleasing.

Even so, I thought it was a strong debut novel, now eight years old. I imagine Meyer’s The Son, published in 2014 (on my to-read list), will illuminate another American landscape. I only hope that this time the characters we need to care about—call me sentimental!—are made to fight.

Have you read American Rust? What books would you compare it to? Like it? Feel it was an accurate portrayal of a Rust Belt locale?

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Water, water everywhere: or don’t die, Lake Erie!

The Maumee River does not begin. Formed out of the confluence of the St. Joseph River from the north, and the St. Marys River from the south, it is a continuation, flowing eastward and slightly northward through northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, eventually opening out 137 miles later into the southwest corner of Lake Erie.…

via Introduction to In The Watershed: A Journey Down The Maumee River — Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt

Rust Belt Girl here with a shout-out to my underdog lake and its watershed. Read more

Re-sharing Rust Belt Arcana; and the natural history of my native place

Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds By Matt Stansberry with Illustrations by David Wilson People have used Tarot cards for over 500 years to reveal some hidden information The post New Book September 2018: Rust Belt Arcana appeared first on Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt.

via New Book September 2018: Rust Belt Arcana — Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt

Exploring this natural history helps us to find our place in the landscape, to know our home and ourselves.

Rust Belt Girl here. News of this new book got me to thinking… How much of my place’s natural history do I know? Read more

What kind of place is this?

APTOPIX Severe-Weather-Texas

I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately. In my recent interview with author David Giffels, the topic of place came up a lot. What makes a place–even an “unglamorous” one–worth sticking to and fighting for, in good times and bad?

Like anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about how the places we call home can change overnight–from places of refuge to those that threaten our livelihood and even life.

And, since I’m an avid reader and writer, I’ve been thinking about how place figures into what we read and write. Remember that first writing class in school, when you learned about the elements of story: plot, character, setting… The setting is the place into which you dump your story, right? The teacher said, “go,” and then we all got started writing a (loosely autobiographical) story that resolved itself neatly–and then we dumped it into a place. Any old place would do. Read more