Amy Goldstein, Janesville : an American story
Tuesday, 4 February 2020
Amy GOLDSTEIN, Janesville : an American story (Simon & Schuster 2017)
ISBN 978-1-5011-0223-3 £15.25 (hardback) / ISBN 978-1-5011-0228-8 £9.99 (e-book)
Janesville is the story of an unspectacular tragedy. Written by the winner of a Pulitzer prize, it is an emotional overview of what happens to a single-industry community, in this case one dependent upon General Motors, when recession hits. The author is a good journalist, with an open style and an eye for human interest. She makes no complex arguments, and the episodic nature of the book might lead one to expect an easy read. It is not.
There is no formal conclusion, and the only message is one we had already from a multitude of single-industry communities, from Lancashire cotton to gold-rush towns, where the grim journey from boom through bust to some modest measure of revival through diversification is well enough known.
But to see this process through the eyes of ordinary middle-class families who descend from being charity givers to becoming charity receivers, from having full company healthcare to joining a waiting list for state and federal aid, and – worse still – from living a pampered childhood to working two and three jobs whilst still at school just to keep the family afloat, is a harrowing experience. Most shocking of all is the phenomenon of homeless teenagers, victims not so much of marital discord as of their parents’ inability to cope with long-term recession. No, it is not an easy read. The three hundred pages leave one emotionally drained.
We are used to hearing that training, re-training and continuing education is the key to economic revival. Janesville tells us otherwise. Unless there are as many new jobs as there were old jobs, and unless enough of those jobs suit people who are better at making than they are at writing or listening or guarding, they are simply mantras. Throughout it all is the slow erosion of the optimism, courtesy and civic pride of a once-prosperous community; and for that there is no magic coughdrop.
British readers can be deeply thankful that, for all its serious strains and imperfections, we have a welfare system. Readers of this bulletin should also take to heart the special privilege they have by virtue of what they are : recruiters are in a position to help rekindle hope.