“American Made” by Farah Stockman; Random House (418 pages, $28)
In 1997, when the Red River Valley overflowed its banks and flooded most of Grand Forks, N.D., I watched then-President Bill Clinton give an empathetic speech to flood victims at an Air Force base hangar. I met three people in the crowd that day who all lived in the same neighborhood, and over the next year I reported on their efforts to rebuild their homes and lives.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Farah Stockman uses a similar, albeit much more expansive, storytelling device in her new book, “American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.” She 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 gained attention in 2016, when then-President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “Rexnord of Indianapolis is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!”
Stockman was sent to Indianapolis to write about the Rexnord plant, maker of steel bearings, for the New York Times. She met union vice president John Feltner and, at a steelworker rally, Wally Hall, “a black man in a blue Rexnord uniform who delivered a stirring message of interracial class solidarity.” Stockman decided to report on their fate after the plant closure, and realized she also needed a woman in that mostly male plant to complete the narrative.
She persuaded Shannon Mulcahy, a tough single mom raising a granddaughter with a disability, able to succeed in the dangerous “heat treat” department, a woman who had overcome sexual abuse and domestic violence, “yet she didn’t seem to think of herself as a victim.”
Stockman not only tells their stories, from childhood to how they ended up at Rexnord to the years after the closure, but she becomes close enough to all three to get them to open up about their dreams, fears, disappointments and secrets. Their candor in the midst of upheaval and pain allows Stockman, and the reader, to see the world “through the steelworkers’ eyes.”
And while the book is centered on John, Wally and Shannon, its themes are far broader than one plant’s closing, ranging from the union movement to the manufacturing economy to trade deals and globalization. Stockman notes that NAFTA resulted in a net loss of American jobs, and the “greatest job losses were blue-collar workers,” resulting in the anger that led many of those workers to vote for Trump after he promised to save their jobs.
Stockman’s insights into race, class and education include acknowledging her own privilege, as the “child of two Ph.D.s” who is “among the tiny number of black people to make it into Harvard.”
I won’t reveal what happened to John, Wally and Shannon — you need to read this book to follow their journey. Suffice it to say you will find yourself anxiously hoping they land in a better place.