In Part I of this interview, Eliese told us a story of the steel mill that didn’t make it into her memoir and about how being a female steelworker helped her find her strength. She talked about hope and despair and holding on through tough times. And she talked about her current work, teaching writing to college students, and about how she shaped the narrative we’re all talking about. If you missed Part I, be sure to catch up, here.
Today, I’m happy to invite the author back. Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020.
“…Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Eliese, your debut memoir was published to lots of praise and national attention. One reviewer compared Rust to Hillbilly Elegy. How did that sit with you? How do you come down on the Elegy issue?
There are definitely parallels between Rust and Hillbilly Elegy. They’re Midwestern memoirs—and Ohio memoirs, in particular—and both stories try to capture the spirit of a misunderstood place through the people who inhabit it. I think readers have a lot to learn from any account written by a native-born soul, especially when that soul is writing about “forgotten” places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, so I don’t begrudge the comparison. I do, however, fear that some of the generalizations and moralizations made in Hillbilly Elegy aren’t as nuanced or productive as they claim to be.
In addition to memoir, you write essays. And I read a hysterically funny piece of dark humor you wrote published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: “An Open Letter to Everyone in the Event of My Likely Demise While Hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Can you tell us what inspired you to write the piece—and where you learned to write funny? Also, can you tell us a little about what you are writing, now?
I’ve always had a little bit of a funny bone buried deep inside. You wouldn’t know it when you meet me. I’m really shy and reserved at first. I smile a lot. I don’t say much. New friends always assume that I’m nice and uncomplicated, but then I’ll land a zinger out of nowhere. People always do a double-take. “Did Eliese really say that? She’s always so quiet!” Humor writing is the perfect way for this unabashed introvert to say something funny. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed clicking through the pages of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It never fails to make me laugh. When you read enough of something, you kind of internalize the prevailing tone. From there, you can experiment with your writing and go wild.
In truth, though, I have to give my best friend credit for lighting the spark behind this particular piece. I was actually making plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail at the time, and my friend and I started joking around about all the things that could go wrong. I’m pretty sure we were mostly talking about bears. “This should be in McSweeney’s,” she said. The rest is history. I immediately set to work writing. I submitted the draft a few days before setting out for Springer Mountain, and I got the acceptance letter while crashing at a hostel in Georgia. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it very far on the trail. I fractured my heel bone, which made walking pretty painful, but at least I have a little humor to show for it!
As far as current projects go, I’m a little leery of jinxing myself. The process of hammering out my next book idea has involved a lot of dead-end drafts. A few months ago, I told people, “I’m writing a book about X!” Then X changed to Y, so I said, “I’m writing a book about Y!” Now Y has changed to Z and I’m all out of sorts. I’m hoping that Z will stick, but I don’t want to press my luck. We’ll just say that the next book will likely involve a lot of research, although it’ll still be grounded in my personal experience.
For us avid readers, could you give us some recommendations? A few recent favorites from authors in the Cleveland area or beyond? A memoir? Creative nonfiction? A novel or story collection? Poetry?
Admittedly, I’ve been diving deep into the research component of “Book Project Z” lately. Most of the reading material on my nightstand is pretty old-fashioned. St. Augustine. Emile Durkheim. David Hume. I’ve also been immersed in A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which is both riveting and gut-wrenching. I strongly recommend it. When it comes to all-time favorites, I always mention the work of David Giffels. Barnstorming Ohio was an absolute pleasure. Another must-read. And I have to give a shout out to poet Damien McClendon. We both read at an event a few months back, and I was just so taken with his words. Have you ever felt sapped as a writer? Maybe the inspiration has run dry.
Maybe the ideas aren’t flowing. Maybe the cursor on the computer screen fills you with dread. Then, all of a sudden, you hear another writer create something beautiful with language and you feel like you can keep going.
That’s what Damien McClendon’s poetry did for me. I was slogging through my writing at the time, and his words gave me a much-needed dose of inspiration.
Of course, this is a reading and writing blog, Eliese, but we need fuel to do both. Also, I’m always longing for food from home. So, what’s a hometown food you can’t live without?
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
“Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Rebecca here, so thrilled to share this author interview with you! A little backstory first: several years ago, when I was interviewing author David Giffels about his memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, he told me about a writer to watch, a young woman who worked in Cleveland’s gargantuan steel mill. Actually he called her a “Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star.” Growing up in the Cleveland area, I knew of the steel mill, its flare stack’s tall orange flame a potent symbol of Cleveland industry–and grit. And I’d read steelworkers’ stories. But never one by a woman. My interest was piqued.
Reader, Eliese’s memoir exceeded my high expectations, balancing harrowing tales of hard times, hard work, and hard-won revelations with gorgeous, lyrical prose.
Meet Eliese: Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020. Rust is the author’s debut memoir. The award-winning writer now works at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where she lives with her husband.
*Trigger warning: this interview contains a mention of sexual assault
Eliese, place is so central to the story you tell in this memoir. And you give your reader access to a place most of us will never know as an insider: Cleveland’s nearly 950-acre steel mill. As a steelworker there, your personal story got wrapped up with the story of the mill. Is there a story that didn’t make it into the book you could tell us?
There were so many stories that never made it to the pages of Rust. I worked in a wide variety of jobs during my tenure at the steel mill, and I probably could have written a book about each one. I learned to put rocks into giant receptacles in a dusty place called The Bin Floor. I spent some time as a “Rough Rider” in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, where the molten steel was made. Every day, I hopped into a tow motor and whizzed around the mill, replenishing the raw materials that were used in the process. I even did a brief stint as a crane operator in the Hot Mill, where glowing slabs of steel were pressed into sheets. It was one of the most interesting—and terrifying—jobs I had ever worked. You spend your hours in a tiny box that smells like body odor. There’s a wonky captain’s chair in the middle of the space, and the walls are covered in a yellowish substance that rubs off on your fingers when you touch it. I later learned that you shouldn’t touch the mystery substance. It’s the sticky accumulation of everyone else’s nicotine tar.
On one of my first nights flying solo behind the controls of the crane, I had a rather frightening experience. A mechanic asked me to move a three-hundred-ton contraption to the other side of the building. At first, I protested. My crane was only rated to lift one-hundred tons, but the man brushed off my concerns. He told me that the three-hundred-ton thing was rigged up to a bunch of pulleys and levers that would supposedly lighten the load, so I conjured up vague images from high school physics class and told myself that everything would be fine. Famous last words, right?
When I started working the gears and levers necessary to move this three-hundred-ton thing, it barely budged. My crane, on the other hand, started to struggle immediately. The gears were grinding. The motor was moaning. I could feel the whole crane begin to buckle in the middle, which wasn’t good. Keep in mind, this crane weighed as much as a blue whale—it was beyond huge—and the mechanic who had asked me to move the three-hundred-ton thing was on the ground, directly below the crane. He was right in harm’s way, and I was still pretty green as a crane operator. I knew that I needed to stop what I was doing, but I didn’t react fast enough. Right before I eased off of the controls, something snapped. Metal twisted and pinged. The hook of the crane went flying. All I could think about was the man on the ground below me.
When everything settled, I opened my window and called down to him. Thankfully, he was okay. The pulleys that were attached to the contraption had shattered—and huge shards of metal had shot off in all directions like gigantic bullets—but luckily the renegade pieces hadn’t hit him. Disaster was avoided, and I whispered a prayer of relief. But the experience shook me. The mill never stopped reminding you of its dangers.
You write, “This place [the steel mill] never failed to remind me that power is double-pronged. The very forces that could rip everything apart were the same ones that tempered something strong and resilient…” Would you say being a female steelworker helped you find your own power—in and out of the mill? How?
I definitely learned a lot about my own strength in the steel mill. It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the mill. There were many subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of sexism, and I really think that the experience taught me to be more assertive when I saw something that went against my values. I also found a vibrant community of other women in the mill, which reminded me of what we can accomplish together, and the strange jobs I performed gave me a sense of self-assurance that extended into other areas of my life. If you can run a hulking crane for twelve hours a day, then you can manage just about anything. When I think back on my time at the mill, however, I know that one of the most important things it gave me was a respectable paycheck. They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I don’t necessarily agree. Making a good living can give you confidence and security and independence. It can provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it felt especially good to know that I was working in a field where men and women were paid the same.
Your having grown up as a Catholic school kid, aspiring nun to steelworker was quite a change in career trajectory. Like many children, you aspired to greatness, to being known for making a difference. You write, “…the religious life seemed to be the only vocation worthy of its power.” Today, your chosen vocation is teaching. Can you tell us what you love to teach the most? What you like to impart to your students—about writing about place, itself, or writing about their place in the world?
I love teaching the nuts-and-bolts to beginning writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with academic essays or creative pieces. I like showing students the beauty of a well-crafted scene, a tight bit of dialogue, or a perfectly-wrought thesis statement. I also enjoy giving feedback to students at all levels. It’s so much fun to dive into a piece of writing in the hopes of offering encouragement and constructive criticism, and it’s even more fun to watch students implement those suggestions in revision. Overall, I think the biggest thing that I’d like my students to take away from class is a sense of self-efficacy and personal power. Writing gives us the ability to create meaning and empathy and wonder. It allows us to see our surroundings in a new light. It helps us understand the roles we play within those surroundings, and it gives us the opportunity to reach audiences that we may never meet in person. I want my students to understand just how influential the written word can be, and I also want them to feel capable of putting their unique stories down on the page.
Your own college experience was shattered when you were raped by a classmate, after which point you were diagnosed with mixed-state bipolar disorder. You talk in the book about the rape taking away your faith. Yet, your book is filled with the language of religion, images both harrowing and redemptive. How, as a writer, do you sit with such seemingly disparate aspects of life, including faith in humanity and utter distrust in the same? And what do you hope the story of your mental health journey does for readers?
The most interesting stories are always the ones that let contradictions breathe. Nothing in life is as simple as we’d like it to be, and the core of good writing lies in those moments of ambiguity when something raw and gritty and human is revealed. Lately I’ve been going over a lot of old books that I read back in college, and I happened to re-familiarize myself with the pages of Plato’s Phaedo the other day. I can’t help but be reminded of this great line: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be the opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. And yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other, like two creatures with one head.” I just love that image. Two creatures with one head. I think it relates to so much more than just pleasure and pain.
You can’t have faith in humanity if you don’t also doubt its goodness. You can’t have hope if you don’t also invite despair. And I’m talking about real hope here, not the cockeyed optimist kind that’s divorced from reality. Real hope has an axe to grind. Real hope has bloody knuckles. I like to think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from living with bipolar disorder. I’ve struggled through the bleakest kinds of despair, but those moments were never the ones that scared me. Despair is just hope earning its stripes. It can always come around the bend. The true enemy doesn’t seem to have a name. You might call it emptiness, or perhaps apathy, but it isn’t really either of those things. It’s this sensation you get when you’re content with a blackness that has not bottom. You feel like a shadow that can no longer be stitched to a body. There’s no despair, no emotion, no longing. It’s a frightening place to be, and I hope that my story can speak to anyone who’s grappling with that place now. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
Take it from a kindred soul: It’s possible to survive. Just hold onto something and don’t let go.
Eliese, as I read your memoir, I kept forgetting it wasn’t a novel, because all the tension and suspense I expect in a good novel were there, keeping me feverishly turning pages. In addition to your story as a steelworker reclaiming your home and yourself after much struggle, there is also a compelling and very real love story here. For us writers, can you talk about how you decided to structure your memoir—if you set out to structure it like a novel?
Structure is the thing I struggle with most as a writer. I’m still traumatized by my 5th grade English class, when the teacher called on me to answer a simple question: “What’s the climax of Where the Red Fern Grows?” I froze. My mind went blank. My palms got sweaty. The whole class was staring at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, there were a thousand tiny climactic moments throughout the novel. How could I possibly pick one? Even now, I’m always overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of structure. You can use the same material to tell a million different stories, and sometimes I want to tell all of those stories at the same time. As such, I inevitably cycle through a lot of failed drafts to figure out the structure that fits the material best.
With Rust, I experimented with everything. I tried making it an essay. I tried making it a chapbook of prose poems. I played around with footnotes. I wrote a pretty long and miserable draft that incorporated tons of research about irony. There’s even a notebook in the back of my closet that contains a feeble attempt to imitate Anne Carson’s Nox. Those drafts took a lot of time and energy, but they gave me a little distance from the lived experience of the steel mill. As a nonfiction writer, it can be difficult to see the shape of a story when you’re still living parts of that story in your daily life. Most of Rust was written while I was still employed as a steelworker, which made it difficult to see where the book needed to end. I kept wanting to add more anecdotes. I kept wanting to change the climax. Luckily, I had an awesome editor and an amazing agent who helped to usher me in the right direction. And once I was able to take a step back and analyze everything I’d written, I realized that a novel-like arc already existed inside the material. From there, the structure settled into place. Sometimes it takes time and revision (and lots of feedback from trusted friends) to discover something’s shape.
*Quotes from the book jacket copy; all images used with permission of the author
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, coming soon…
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
What doesn’t bite? A surprise gift. One of my favorite surprise gifts I received this past Christmas was a book (shocker, right?): Cleveland Then and Now by Laura DeMarco, with Now photography by Karl Mondon.
The large-format book celebrates the storied history and vibrant present of my home city of Cleveland. (Granted, I grew up in Cleveland’s hinterlands, but Cleveland–and especially its Playhouse Square, where I danced with the School of the Cleveland Ballet–has my whole heart.) Having left home at 19, I now have lived longer away from Ohio (and below the Mason Dixon, God forbid) than in Ohio. Still, I consider it home.
Much of my Christmas afternoon was spent poring over the landmarks in this book. There’s Cleveland’s most beautiful building, the historic Cleveland Arcade (pictured below), where my dad worked for a time; hippie haven Hessler Road, where my mom lived when in college; Little Italy, where my parents married at Holy Rosary Church; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Playhouse Square, the largest center of performing arts between New York and Chicago; the Streamline Moderne Greyhound station, which I rolled in and out of on trips home from college in Virginia; and much more.
The book’s author: arts and culture reporter and editor for the Plain Dealer–Cleveland’s newspaper of record–a reporter who specialized in local history and lost landmarks in the city. As many newspapers have, my hometown paper has seen its share of layoffs in recent times. Then, just last month, the news about more layoffs started coming fast and furious into my Twitter feed. Or more aptly put in this article with all the ins and outs: it was a “gutting” of a newsroom and a sure blow to journalism and journalists the Northeast Ohio community relies on. When remaining journalists were faced with losing their beats and told they would no longer be able to cover the city, a round of resignations yesterday included that of DeMarco.
Since the coronavirus reared its ugly, spiked head, journalists, writers, and bloggers have found ways of making sense of pandemic-havoc by telling the stories of our communities. While my platform is small, my community, my “beat,” during this isolation, is my family. And so I’ve been using these daily prompts to tell our stories: there’s Isolation Lent; Reviled Remote School; Close-Proximity Parenting (if my kids say to me, “OK, Boomer,” one more time, I might lose it); Extended Family Worries, and all the rest.
I’m keeping it together as best as this (ahem) Generation X-er can, which, according to DeMarco, might be pretty OK. In a piece she wrote last month, she notes that our Reality Bites generation is getting this isolation thing right: “While millennials and Gen Z kept partying and going to the beach, and boomers who didn’t want to recognize they are not so young anymore kept brunching, Gen X stood up and took action — and stayed in.” In this fun piece, she highlights the voices of several local Gen X-ers. The story brought to mind my own time in Cleveland with my best Gen-X girlfriends…dressed like we’d shopped at a Depeche Mode garage sale…drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…watching the skaters outside Arabica on Coventry…acting all moody, sorta like isolating even when not alone.
Yeah, today’s reality–and it’s far-reaching impacts on our society–bites, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering from job loss and worse. What can we do? It is a very small thing, but today I’ll tell it like it is and hope for a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me.
I’m so thrilled to present this interview with Johnny Joo, a fellow Northeast Ohio native, whose photography* I’ve featured at the blog before. But this time, we get the stories behind the lens…
Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture and surrealistic digital compositions. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. Since he started, his art has expanded, including the publication of four books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations, and videography.
Johnny, how did you first get into photography–and abandonment photography in particular?
I was an art student in high school, and photography was another art class I could take, so I took it to fill space with as much art stuff as I could–not thinking that I would like it as much as I did. I got super interested in the whole science behind it and being able to capture a moment in time that would not happen again. For one of the first projects, I photographed some empty rooms in the high school, and also photographed an old farm house. It reminded me of Silent Hill and other horror games and movies I enjoyed.
I thought it was a great subject for photos, and I loved the way nature wore it down to create something so dark and eerie, yet calm and beautiful. That’s the film photo of the empty class room [above]. I gave the rest of my film and binder to my photography teacher, so I don’t have anything else, but I did keep my favorite photo–and it’s the first photo I developed successfully.
I just kept photographing any abandoned or creepy historic place I could find (along with EVERYTHING else) and started sifting through papers in some of the old buildings and found so much history left behind.
I thought it was interesting to piece a life and history together–being able to know so much without ever having known any of the people beforehand.
Did your mom say that nursery rhyme upon returning home (with our without the fat pig?). Mine did, and now I do the same, fully expecting the eye-rolls from the kids in the back seat.
So, I promised a photo-filled post of my trip home to Ohio, and I’m finally delivering. If you came here looking for writing advice, reviews, or interviews, please see the categories above. Or, take this advice: returning to your childhood home with your children for the first time can feel daunting, but it’s good for the soul–and stories.
My boys and I celebrated the end of another school year with a trip to Ohio. Photo-heavy post to come, but for now, suffice it to say we had a blast. Hung out in CLE with one of my best friends and her son and then pressed on to to my dad’s, where we vacationed in Lake Erie Shores and Islands fashion.
As any parent will tell you, I could use a post-vacation vacation, but it’s time to get back to work, while my boys enjoy the freedom of summer vacation. First, I wanted to touch base with you and thank you for following my journey here at the blog. With my birthday coming up, I’m feeling a little reminiscent: thanks for helping to make this past year great!
Speaking of reminiscing, one of my fave smart-funny mom bloggers, Becca, interviewed me for her blog: With Love, Becca: Funny Mom, Career Coach, Storytelling Enthusiast. We chatted about my blog, about freelance writing, creative writing, rejection, and resiliency. Of course, we also talked kids and humor-as-saving-grace. And I submitted to a 90s rapid fire Q&A that took me all the way back. Good times. And such a fun interview to do. I hope you’ll check it out and follow Becca’s blog. She’s inspiring plenty of career-swiveling-fun parenting-sanity saving change over there. Developing Resiliency in Your Creative Pursuits: Q&A with Writer Rebecca Moon Ruark.
Happy almost summer! What are your plans? Vacay? Creative pursuits? And please let me know what books you’re looking to read by the pool this summer. I love suggestions!
Love poetry or hate it (btw, you don’t really hate it), Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas is right there with you.
What’s it like to be a poet laureate? I asked Dave Lucas that–and more–in this interview over email. Here’s what the author, teacher, and “poetry evangelist” had to say.
Dave, how much does it mean for you to have been chosen as Poet Laureate of Ohio, and what’s up next for 2019?
If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would have said how honored I felt by the selection and how excited I was for the two years to come. A year into my term I still feel honored and excited, but more than anything I feel gratitude. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see parts of my home state I’ve never visited before, to talk about poetry in such varied settings and with so many people for whom poetry is a way of making meaning of their lives.
In 2019 I hope to continue those travels, but I also hope to “meet” more Ohioans virtually through the “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” project. The project entails a monthly column syndicated in Ohio newspapers and media outlets; this year we hope to create a podcast version as well, so that we can promote poetry in whatever medium Ohioans get their information and culture.
As Poet Laureate, I imagine you’ve met many Ohioans in your travels around the state. What has surprised you most?
I’ve certainly been struck by the number and quality of poetry programs taking place at the regional and local levels. These are workshops, reading groups, recitations, slams, and more, and I’ve encountered them everywhere I’ve traveled in Ohio. The internet has of course been revolutionary for bringing people together around a common interest, but there’s something wonderful about seeing people gather in common physical space to talk about poetry.
In your Poet Laureate column on the Ohio Arts Council site, as well as in the classroom, you send the message that most of us love poetry, even if we don’t know it yet. Can you talk a little about how you define poetry and give us a couple examples of the kinds of poetic language we can find outside of what we traditionally think of as poetry?
Literary history tells us that anyone who attempts to define poetry today is about to be proven wrong tomorrow. That’s both the pleasure and challenge of trying to say what poetry is or isn’t. So I try to maintain as broad and flexible a definition as possible. I think that poetry is the aesthetic pleasure we take in language. Words are for play as well as work, as the groan-worthy puns of any good “Dad joke” will demonstrate.
So puns and jokes in general might be examples of the poetry we find outside of “poems.” So are the metaphors we use to describe the world. Riddles, jingles, lyrics, mnemonics, and more. For instance, I’ve just finished a column (my sixth installment) about the artistry of slang, which Walt Whitman treats as the democratic aspect of poetry. In this column I argue that even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, you participate every day in the artistry of language simply via the creativity of the slang you use. Read more
I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.
And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.
No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).
There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).
At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.
It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.
Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.
There’s something special about a love story set in the time and place one’s parents fell in love.
Paris? London? Niagara Falls? Nope. I’m talking about Cleveland, Ohio.
The real love story (that eventually begat me and my siblings) started with a blind date. Here goes: the young man who would become my dad met the young woman who would become my mom at her apartment door. Her first words to him: “You’re not as bald as they said you were.” Ah, romance. Long story short, she liked his car, a racing-green Austin Healey convertible, and him too, no doubt.
Crooked River Burning*, a novel by Mark Winegardner, explores parallel love stories—between a boy from Cleveland’s West Side and a girl from Cleveland’s East Side (read: upstart vs. old money); and between the people of Cleveland and their city itself.
From the book jacket:
In 1948 Cleveland was America’s sixth biggest city; by 1969 [the year my parents married] it was the twelfth…In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks. Anne O’Connor, at twelve, is the apple of her political boss father’s eye. David and Anne will meet—and fall in love—four years later, and for the next twenty years this pair will be reluctantly star-crossed lovers in a troubled and turbulent country.
The city of Cleveland is a microcosm of this changing country. The author gives the reader a window into organized crime in the 40s, when we meet real-life Clevelander Eliot Ness; into the 50s rock and roll scene starring disc jockey Alan Freed; and into the race riots of the 60s, when we meet Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.
For sports fans (Winegardner is also the author of TheVeracruz Blues about baseball), there are stories plenty about the Indians and the Browns (with Art Modell cast as the Machiavellian villain he was, IMO.) Masterfully blending fact (replete with entertaining footnotes) and fiction, this novel is comparable to the works of E.L. Doctorow. Where Doctorow explored New York, Winegardner explores Cleveland.
Does Winegardner know Cleveland! One of my favorite Cleveland bits—and never more appropriate than now, as we endure “wet-winter” into April:
“In Cleveland there is no spring. In Cleveland there is winter, then a wetter-meaner sort of winter…Then one day winter/wet-winter ends and, bingo-bango, it’s summertime.”
But why talk weather when we can talk love? Wingardner on love:
“A person can be in love with the idea of love. A person can fall in love with the idea of another person. Less commonly, a person can fall in love with another person.
In fact, a person always falls in love with the idea of another person, not the person. Falling in love with the actual person takes time and too much honesty…
Some people luck out. The thing they’ve been calling love turns out to be just that. Such people exist. Film at eleven.”
Oh, you were looking for love between David and Anne? I’m not spoiling much when I tell you that the most romantic setting in the book, a snowy New York at Christmastime in a posh hotel suite, and Anne is down with the flu. On the other extreme, the setting of the Cuyahoga (“crooked”) River on fire finds our protagonists in, well, love as real as it gets.
Is the book perfect? Not quite. For me, some of the real-life Cleveland profile sections ran a little long: among them, Mayor Carl Stokes, Cleveland newspaper editor Louie Seltzer, maybe-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer news broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. Still, this book will find a place on my bookshelves, alongside Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, perhaps, for its mastery of a real time and place in history overlaid with a timeless love story and for a lyrical yet playful use of language.
But back to our fictional lovers…through their twenties and thirties, David and Anne attempt to make their childhood professional dreams (Cleveland mayor, and war correspondent, respectively) come true. But, like thwarted love stories talk of ships passing, most of us don’t become our childhood heroes.
If the real Cleveland love story—starring my dad and my mom—could have met the imagined one starring David and Anne, they would have come together in the late 60s. Both couples were in love as the real city burned its land and its water. The Cuyahoga River burned (helping to create the Clean Water Act); and the Hough Riots, among the first of the 1960s race riots, turned Clevelanders against their neighbors and even against themselves.
Like many Clevelanders who could, my parents left the city for a house in the country, where they would raise a few chickens and ducks, a goat named Esmeralda, and three human kids. In trading one setting for another, I’m sure they’d say they gained more than they lost. I wonder about those who didn’t leave.
Did Winegardner intend for this dual love story to be a cautionary tale? In 2018, one could read the book that way—especially through the lens of race. One of the most chilling parts of the book comes from Anne’s perspective. It’s a month after the riots, and Anne is questioning everything in her life and in her city:
“Human beings don’t destroy their own homes, do they? In Anne’s experience, they do…Rome burns. Has burned, is burning, always will be burning. Look harder. Smell it. It’s not Rome we’re talking about, sport. (Who knows but on the lower frequencies, Cleveland burns for you?) Yet you sit there. We sit there. Don’t move.”
What’s the best book you’ve read about your hometown? If you were going to write your own love story, where would you set it?
*Published in 2001 by Mariner Books (576 pages). Yep, I’m late to the party.
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