By @SimonCocking review of Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.  This book won the 2017 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. 

A Washington Post reporter’s intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors’ assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin—Paul Ryan’s hometown—and a larger story of the hollowing of the American middle class.

This is the story of what happens to an industrial town in the American heartland when its factory stills—but it’s not the familiar tale. Most observers record the immediate shock of vanished jobs, but few stay around long enough to notice what happens next, when a community with a can-do spirit tries to pick itself up.

Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Goldstein has spent years immersed in Janesville, Wisconsin where the nation’s oldest operating General Motors plant shut down in the midst of the Great Recession, two days before Christmas of 2008. Now, with intelligence, sympathy, and insight into what connects and divides people in an era of economic upheaval, she makes one of America’s biggest political issues human. Her reporting takes the reader deep into the lives of autoworkers, educators, bankers, politicians, and job re-trainers to show why it’s so hard in the twenty-first century to recreate a healthy, prosperous working class.

Recession-hit the US hard, and the automobile industry too in the mid 2000s. Up until that time Janesville, Wisconsin had always, despite some near misses, had a car production factory open in the town. Naturally with a near monoculture it always left the population dangerously exposed if General Motors decide to move away. Even the other factories, such as the dedicated seat manufacturer was interdependent with GM, so went it went down, it all went down. Goldstein follows a well trodden path of American journalists looking to achieve a Pulitzer for investigative writing, going all the way back to Upton Sinclair for hard hitting exposes of the underbelly of American life.

There is a lot to like about Goldstein’s book, returning for almost a decade to the town to follow up the progress of its citizens. For some it evolves and progresses, for others it declines and ends tragically. The value and challenges of a mosaic driven approach to storytelling (namely a series of narratives, with a resulting fractured perspective) does mean can feel a little uneven at times. But perhaps this reflects life itself, some lives burn slowly and measuredly, others burn brightly, and then run into dead ends, and re-reckonings.

Overall it is a book that was well worth writing, and reading, to try and dig deeper into what happens when something like this happens to a town and it’s community.


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