Hidden Americaa by Jeanne Marie Laskas (2012)

9780399159008_custom-1176d02c42af9e909a3d78bf3e6e954fbefb49e4-s6-c30I devoured this book in a few sittings.  Made up of 9 stories, this nonfiction collection is essentially a series of magazine feature articles connected by the theme “the people who make America work.”  And yet, its title, Hidden America, is a juxtaposition: these are some of the many people that make America work, and yet they are hidden from daily life.  That is to say, most of us know little or nothing about them or their jobs—they are the unseen.  As the author tells us in the introduction, we read about coal mines and oil rigs when one of them blows up; we read about gun shops and gun enthusiasts after we’ve endured the news of yet another shooting; we read about migrant workers when congress wants to throw out our immigrant labor, but how much do we really know about any of these people and these jobs beyond the headlines and the disasters?  That’s what Laskas gives us that the news doesn’t: a feature story—an in depth look—into the lives of the people we don’t know at all, but the jobs they do that we rely on every day.  In her nine features, each with a central character and a cast of many others, she dives into life in these nine lines of work: a coal mine in Ohio, a migrant labor camp in Maine, the Ben-Gal cheerleading squad in Cincinnati, the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport, a gun shop in Arizona, a beef ranch in Texas, an oil rig off the shores of Alaska’s north slope, a truck driver crossing Iowa, and a landfill in California. And in each piece, we are literally living this life alongside the author and the central people she tags along with for weeks, or even months, at at time. I had no idea how much engineering, physics, and chemistry is involved in landfill management, particularly in converting toxic gases into usable energy; I was taken aback by the work ethic and commitment of the blueberry rakers who begin their work season in Florida and pick their way up to Maine—the state where they feel most valued and respected for their field work; I was surprised to find out that coal miners have no control over the ceiling height of a mine: a coal seam is a coal seam, and it’s whatever height was decided about 300 million years ago–it might be five feet and it might be 32 inches.  Either way, that’s what every miner has to fit into for his long shift 500 feet underground day after day.  I could go on and on with everything else I learned—and learned to appreciate.

I feel lucky, privileged, and thankful to have been invited into the lives of the folks featured this book. Obviously these nine places barely scratch the surface of the many, many workers in our country that are “hidden” from most of us.  But if more of us had a glimpse into these lives, I think we’d be enriched.  We would see our steak for what it once was: a rancher’s animal, and we’d roll our trash bin to the street with a little more understanding as to where it goes and what it looks like when millions of other trash bins add up to a full landfill.

So often, memoirs and nonfiction books are 50% longer than they need to be.  I usually find myself wondering why the author didn’t cut and condense with more discipline (case in point: a previous book by this author, Fifty Acres and a Poodle was interesting and funny for a while, but it needed to end much sooner than it did).  But in this book, I found myself wanting more.  I didn’t want any of the stories to end. I definitely plan to purchase my own copy of this book.  (nonfiction)

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