“American Made” by Farah Stockman; Random house (418 pages, $28)
In 1997, when the Red River Valley overflowed and flooded most of Grand Forks, ND, I watched then-President Bill Clinton deliver an empathetic speech to flood victims in a shed in the Air Force base. I met three people in the crowd that day who all lived in the same neighborhood, and over the next year I documented their efforts to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Farah Stockman uses a similar, though much larger, storytelling device in her new book, “American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.” It follows three union workers who lose their jobs when their factory closes, a gripping real-world drama of their financial and emotional struggles.
And not just any factory. One that caught attention in 2016, when then-President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “Rexnord of Indianapolis is moving to Mexico and rather violently laying off all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!”
Stockman was sent to Indianapolis to write about the steel bearing maker Rexnord plant for The New York Times. She met union vice-president John Feltner and, at a rally of metalworkers, Wally Hall, “a black man in Rexnord blue uniform who delivered a moving message of interracial class solidarity”. Stockman decided to report on their plight after the factory closed and realized that she also needed a woman in this mostly male factory to complete the narrative.
She persuaded Shannon Mulcahy, a tough single mother raising a disabled granddaughter, capable of succeeding in the dangerous ‘heat treatments’ department, a woman who had overcome sexual abuse and domestic violence, “yet she didn’t seem to think to herself as a victim”.
Stockman not only tells their stories, from their childhood to how they ended up in Rexnord to the years after the closure, but she becomes close enough to the three to get them to talk about their dreams, their fears, of their disappointments and their secrets. Their candor in the midst of upheaval and pain allows Stockman and the reader to see the world “through the eyes of steelworkers.”
And although the book centers on John, Wally and Shannon, its themes are much broader than the closing of a factory, ranging from the labor movement and the manufacturing economy to trade agreements and globalization. Stockman notes that NAFTA resulted in a net loss of jobs in the United States, and that “the biggest job losses were among blue-collar workers,” which sparked the anger that led many of these workers to vote. for Trump after he promised to save their jobs.
Stockman’s ideas of race, class, and education include recognition of his own privilege, as a “child of two doctorates” who is “among the few black people to go to Harvard.”
I won’t reveal what happened to John, Wally and Shannon – you have to read this book to follow their journey. Suffice it to say, you’ll find yourself anxiously hoping they land somewhere better.