Top 3. Top 10. Top 100. We attach ourselves to the superlative and feel tops–if only for a moment. And that almighty numeral: even an English major gets to feel like a statistician.
So, without further ado…
A Rust Belt Girl Top 3 (according to you)
with related recommended viewing for the new year:
Number 3: A blog is born, my first-ever post, covered my rationale for starting this blog. (Among my reasons: an online search for “female and Rust Belt” turned up rust-colored ladies’ belts for sale by JCPenny.) For those of you who made it to post two, thank you!
I was sixteen before I knew a dad who didn’t drive a pickup truck.
Of course, this speaks as much to my limited teenage powers of observation as it does to my rural Ohio upbringing. Still…
My dad’s life was–and is–in his truck. A dad without a truck? How else would one: haul his 84 Lumber finds to turn the attic into proper living quarters; bring home fresh-split logs–and the log-splitter–to stoke the wood stove in winter; tow a rotted shell of a boat to be restored from the ribs up–in the workshop designed and built yourself.
In my eyes, my dad was the original DIY-er, before that catchy name was put to skillful industriousness, craftsmanship, and thrift.
As such…reading award-winning Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels’ memoir All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House felt like going home. Cursory jacket copy summary:
With their infant son in tow, David Giffels and his wife comb the environs of Akron, Ohio, in search of just the right house for their burgeoning family…until they spot a beautiful, decaying Gilded Age mansion. A former rubber industry executive’s domain, the once grand residence lacks functional plumbing and electricity, leaks rain like a cartoon shack, and is infested with all manner of wildlife. But for a young man at a coming-of-age crossroads–“suspended between a perpetual youth and an inevitable adulthood”–the challenge is exactly the allure.
The tried-and-true tropes of female coming-of-age couldn’t be more different than those Giffels explores in this man vs. house tale. But in the reading of this heartfelt and oftentimes harrowing (as in Giffels hanging upside down out a second-story window to paint exterior trim) memoir, I completely understood his feeling compelled–even obsessed–to DIY.
Here at Rust Belt Girl, I’m thrilled to connect with other writers who explore America’s post-industrial heartland, the Rust Belt, and find that its rich history is still being discovered. Paul Hertneky and I share no relation except for a love of these hardscrabble places and for representing the voices of these places truthfully. For more than twenty-six years, Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, NBC News, and many more outlets. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood is his memoir.
“Rust Belt Boy brings to life in loving, lyric detail an essential but over-looked portrait of America’s blue collar heart,” writes National Book Award Finalist, Sy Montgomery. [It] illuminates moments that change our lives and the small recurrences that shape our decisions. In a millworker’s milieu—seldom seen by outsiders, filled with soot, solvents, and sharp edges—we encounter the work ethic of immigrants, then as now. These pages explore the push-and-pull of family and a hometown, the gravity—nearby or at a distance—that keeps us in orbit around our roots. (Book jacket copy)
Paul—Rust Belt Boy is an exploration of your roots, your personal history and the history of your hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. In the writing of this memoir, what was the most surprising thing you learned about your native place?
That honor goes to the Harmonists. By most people’s reckoning [the Christian separatist society—a celibate “utopia”—founded in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s] was the most financially successful community of the time, probably anywhere. To have three stanzas devoted to the society in Lord Byron’s Don Juan; to be a subject of discussion between Marx and Engels; to have more money at the time under the bed of the founder than in the U.S. treasury. What a force these people were. How we ignored it! That might be the biggest surprise: the fact that we were not entirely cognizant of where we were.
The question is: does our writing in some way put people in touch with their past? That’s the role we can play. That was maybe most surprising. This place was far more pivotal in American history than we knew. It points out how little attention we paid to the past—that distance between the immigrant experience of the here and now and the heritage of where we were.
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:
Talking (or writing) about oneself is evidence of vanity.
Talking about one’s successes is risky business, as in you don’t want to jinx yourself.
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.
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.