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An American Story
Table of Contents
About The Book
“A gripping story of psychological defeat and resilience” (Bob Woodward, The Washington Post)—an intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, 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 main factory shuts down—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–winning reporter Amy Goldstein spent years immersed in Janesville, Wisconsin, where the nation’s oldest operating General Motors assembly plant shut down in the midst of the Great Recession. Now, with intelligence, sympathy, and insight into what connects and divides people in an era of economic upheaval, Goldstein shows the consequences of one of America’s biggest political issues. 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.
“Moving and magnificently well-researched...Janesville joins a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class in the United States. What sets it apart is the sophistication of its storytelling and analysis” (Jennifer Senior, The New York Times).
“Anyone tempted to generalize about the American working class ought to meet the people in Janesville. The reporting behind this book is extraordinary and the story—a stark, heartbreaking reminder that political ideologies have real consequences—is told with rare sympathy and insight” (Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Soul of a New Machine).
At 7:07 a.m., the last Tahoe reaches the end of the assembly line. Outside it is still dark, 15 degrees with 33 inches of snow—nearly a December record—piled up and drifting as a stinging wind sweeps across the acres of parking lots.
Inside the Janesville Assembly Plant, the lights are blazing, and the crowd is thick. Workers who are about to walk out of the plant into uncertain futures stand alongside pensioned retirees who have walked back in, their chests tight with incredulity and nostalgia. All these GM’ers have followed the Tahoe as it snakes down the line. They are cheering, hugging, weeping.
The final Tahoe is a beauty. It is a black LTZ, fully loaded with heated seats, aluminum wheels, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, and a sticker price of $57,745 if it were going to be for sale in this economy in which almost no one anymore wants to buy a fancy General Motors SUV.
Five men, including one in a Santa hat, stand in front of the shiny black SUV holding a wide banner, its white spaces crammed with workers’ signatures. “Last Vehicle off the Janesville Assembly Line,” the banner says, with the date, December 23, 2008. It is destined for the county historical society.
Television crews from as far away as the Netherlands and Japan have come to film this moment, when the oldest plant of the nation’s largest automaker turns out its last.
So the closing of the assembly plant, two days before Christmas, is well recorded.
This is the story of what happens next.
Janesville, Wisconsin, lies three fourths of the way from Chicago to Madison along Interstate 90’s path across America from coast to coast. It is a county seat of 63,000, built along a bend in the Rock River. And at a spot on the banks where the river narrows sits the assembly plant.
General Motors started turning out Chevrolets in Janesville on Valentine’s Day of 1923. For eight and a half decades, this factory, like a mighty wizard, ordered the city’s rhythms. The radio station synchronized its news broadcasts to the shift change. Grocery prices went up along with GM raises. People timed their trips across town to the daily movements of freight trains hauling in parts and hauling away finished cars, trucks, and SUVs. By the time the plant closed, the United States was in a crushing financial crisis that left a nation strewn with discarded jobs and deteriorated wages. Still, Janesville’s people believed that their future would be like their past, that they could shape their own destiny. They had reason for this faith.
Long before General Motors arrived, Janesville was an industrious little city, surrounded by the productive farmland of southern Wisconsin. It was named for a settler, Henry Janes, and its manufacturing history began early. A few years before the Civil War, the Rock River Iron Works was making agricultural implements in a complex of buildings along South Franklin Street. By 1870, a local business directory listed fifteen Janesville carriage manufacturers. Along the river, a textile industry thrived—wool, then cotton. By 1880, 250 workers, most of them young women, were weaving cloth in the Janesville Cotton Mills.
As the twentieth century opened, Janesville was a city of about thirteen thousand—descendants of the original settlers from the East Coast and immigrants over the decades from Ireland, Germany, and Norway. Downtown, Franklin and River Streets were lined with factories. Milwaukee and Main Streets were crowded with shops, offices, and, at one point, a saloon for every 250 residents. Stores stayed open on Saturday nights for farm families to come into town once their week’s work was done. The bridge that carried Milwaukee Street over the river was still wooden, but electrified streetcars running north and south from downtown had replaced the old horse-drawn trolley service. Janesville was a railroad hub. Each day, sixty-four passenger trains, plus freight trains, pulled in and out of town. Raw materials arrived for factories, politicians for whistle-stop tours, and vaudeville stars for performances at the Myers Grand Opera House.
In Janesville’s long history of making things, two figures stand out. They are homegrown captains of industry, obscure to most Americans but legend to every Janesville schoolkid. They shaped the city’s identity along with its economy.
The first was a young telegraphy instructor in town named George S. Parker. In the 1880s, he patented a better fountain pen and formed the Parker Pen Company. Soon, Parker Pen expanded into international markets. Its pens showed up at world leaders’ treaty signings, at World’s Fairs. Parker Pen imbued the city with an outsized reputation and reach. It put Janesville on the map.
The second was another savvy businessman, Joseph A. Craig, who made General Motors pay attention to Janesville’s talent. Near the close of World War I, he maneuvered to bring GM to town, at first to make tractors. Over the years, the assembly plant grew to 4.8 million square feet, the playing area of ten football fields. It had more than seven thousand workers in its heyday and led to thousands of jobs at nearby companies that supplied parts. If Parker Pen put Janesville on the map, GM kept it there. It proved that Janesville could surmount adversity under trying circumstances, seemingly immune to the blows of history. During the Great Depression, it closed—and reopened a year later. During a sitdown strike, a seminal event in U.S. labor history, while autoworkers rioted elsewhere, peace held in Janesville. During World War II, the plant turned out artillery shells as part of the home front before postwar production resumed, greater than ever. Even as the auto industry’s fortunes in the 1970s started to fade, dooming other plants, Janesville’s assembly line moved on and on.
So when the assembly plant stopped on a frozen December morning of 2008, how could people in town have known that this time would be different? Nothing in their past had prepared them to recognize that another comeback would not save them now.
The work that vanished—as many as nine thousand people lost their jobs in and near this county seat in 2008 and 2009—was among 8.8 million jobs washed away in the United States by what came to be known as the Great Recession. This was, of course, not the first moment at which some American communities have hemorrhaged jobs in their defining industries. The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, began to shut down or move to the South as early as World War I. Youngstown, Ohio’s, Black Monday of 1977 began to erase an eventual fifty thousand jobs in steel and related industries. But this mighty recession—the worst economic time since the 1930s—stole American jobs, not in a single industry, not in a cluster of ill-fated communities, but up and down the economic ladder, from the East Coast to the West, in places that had never been part of the Rust Belt or any other bad economic belt and had never imagined that they would be so bruised. Places like Janesville.
Today, the assembly plant is padlocked behind a chain-link perimeter. Over the portico of the Art Deco main entrance, its logo is visible still. The logo is the outline of three gears, a different design in each one. In the right gear, the GM symbol. In the left, the crest of the United Auto Workers. Between them, a white field shaped like Wisconsin, with a candy pink heart near the bottom where Janesville sits. And in black letters across the top: JANESVILLE PEOPLE WORKING TOGETHER. The logo is starting to rust.
Inside, the plant is dark. Its innards—lathes to welders to five-ton hoists, all the equipment that a dead auto factory no longer needs—have been picked over and auctioned off. Outside, the parking lots’ concrete acres are empty except for a security guard’s lone sedan. Against the sky, smokestacks seem to go on forever, spewing nothing at all.
Out back, nature has reclaimed an expanse where the rows of gleaming SUVs used to be parked before they were shipped away—fields now, with saplings sprouting up. At the back entrance, a small sign is perched atop a guard’s gate, missing a few letters: T FOR HE MEMORIES.
Without its assembly plant, Janesville goes on, its surface looking uncannily intact for a place that has been through an economic earthquake. Keeping up appearances, trying to hide the ways that pain is seeping in, is one thing that happens when good jobs go away and middle-class people tumble out of the middle class. Along Racine Street, the route from the Interstate to the center of town, little American flags flutter from every street lamp. Main Street, with its nineteenth-century buildings of red and Milwaukee cream brick, retains its architectural grace. That some of its storefronts are vacant is nothing new; the mall began pulling business away from downtown in the 1970s. A recent Heart of the City Outdoor Art Campaign has splashed large pastel murals on the sides of downtown buildings, each mural commemorating one of Janesville’s first decades, from its founding in 1836. The mural on the back of City Hall, illustrating the coming of the railroad through town in the 1850s, has a steam locomotive and a spike-driving man, and, lettered across the bottom, “History. Vision. Grit.”
So Janesville goes on, yet it is altered. The change can be glimpsed from the many “For Sale” signs that appeared along residential streets, from the payday loan franchises that opened along the Milton Avenue commercial drag running north from downtown, from the enlarged space now occupied by the Salvation Army Family Center.
And the citizens of Janesville? They set out to reinvent their town and themselves. Over a few years, it became evident that no one outside—not the Democrats nor the Republicans, not the bureaucrats in Madison or in Washington, not the fading unions nor the struggling corporations—had the key to create the middle class anew. The people of Janesville do not give up. And not just the autoworkers. From the leading banker to the social worker devoted to sheltering homeless kids, people take risks for one another, their affection for their town keeping them here.
It is hard. The deserted assembly plant embodies their dilemma: How do you forge a future—how do you even comprehend that you need to let go of the past—when the carcass of a 4.8-million-square-foot cathedral of industry still sits in silence on the river’s edge?
Still, people cling to Janesville’s can-do spirit. A month before the assembly plant closed, its managers and its United Auto Workers local announced together that the last Tahoe would be donated to the United Way of North Rock County and raffled off for charity. So many tickets, at $20 apiece or six for $100, were sold, so many of them to laid-off workers who didn’t have a clue where their next paycheck would come from, that the raffle raised $200,460, pushing the United Way’s annual campaign above its goal in the depths of the recession.
The winning ticket went to a GM retiree who had worked at the plant for thirty-seven years and has so cherished the Tahoe that it seldom leaves his garage.
Reading Group Guide
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A New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Notable Book, and one of Barack Obama’s top 10 books—all in 2017—Janesville: An American Story is an account of resilience, hardship, and family in America’s heartland. Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein spent years immersed in Janesville, Wisconsin, after General Motors shut down its oldest operating assembly plant in the midst of the Great Recession. Goldstein paints an intimate picture of blue-collar workers and their families who are faced with uncertainty, doubt, depression, and the inability to care for their loved ones. What emerges is a portrait of middle America, where brave people try to remake themselves while supporting each other. Goldstein’s unflinching portrait of politicians—including Barack Obama and Paul Ryan, whose hometown is Janesville—shows the human cost to sometimes empty promises.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. One of the themes in the first half of Janesville is the dissolution of job security—that jobs will last and employers will take care of their workers. On page 13, Jerad observes, “Much as he has disliked this job, he does not doubt that it will protect him after it is gone.” Discuss with your group the expectations you all have of your jobs. Do you expect employers to “take care of you” in an economic downturn?
2. On page 25, Goldstein describes the retirement party for Marv Wopat. Marv has a legacy at the General Motors plant and is retiring after successfully providing for his family for forty years at GM—the first and only job he had after completing military service in 1968. Because of his hire date, Marv is retiring with security—a pension. What do you think his emotions and reflections about his time at GM would have been if he had not been able to retire gracefully with a pension? How does he feel about the fact that his children may not have the same opportunity?
3. Marv’s son, Matt, is another key player in this story. On page 30, Goldstein observes that “he liked that his General Motors wages made him a good provider.” Throughout Janesville, there are several male characters who find their meaning in life from providing for their families. What does being a “good provider” mean in this context? What does it mean in your own context?
4. Throughout Janesville, there are instances of what “masculinity” and responsibility look like for the men of Janesville, Wisconsin (for example, page 59). Discuss what their idea of masculinity looks like, and point to the instances in the book where you see that idea shifting.
5. On page 70, there is a sense of hometown pride: “‘Move on’ sounds like an insult. They hear ‘move on’ as a betrayal of Janesville’s past and a cruel disregard for a thin silver lining on which, dispirited as they are, they are beginning to focus.” At this point in the book, how do you think things will end for former Janesville GM’ers with this mentality? Is there an element of denial to their hope that the auto jobs will return? How could this mentality be helpful? How could it be hurtful?
6. Janesville is full of intimate observations, such as this brief paragraph at the end of page 84: “As she listens and watches, her mother has an insight about Kristi that she doesn’t say aloud. Kristi needs to prove something to herself: that, at thirty-seven, she isn’t too old to make a fresh start.” How do you think author Amy Goldstein learned this? What kind of questions did she need to ask?
7. Throughout chapter 20, and specifically on page 102, we see Linda’s feelings about her long career at Parker Pen shifting toward its end. Her feelings intensify when she is asked to train someone in Mexico to take over her job. Discuss as a group whether you see evidence in the book that a small city like Janesville might have resentment of immigrants. What are factors that could promote or help avoid tensions like this?
8. Shame plays a recurring role in Janesville—specifically around money and being able to provide. On page 108, Matt thinks “he can’t let his kids feel that kind of money shame.” What do you think “money shame” means here? How do you relate to that phrase?
9. Throughout Janesville, we get snapshots of Paul Ryan and Barack Obama. After reading the book in its entirety, have your opinions of either of these politicians changed and, if so, why?
10. All the laid-off GM employees in the story attempt to start new careers, with varying degrees of success. Has anyone in your group, or anyone’s family members, started a new career in midlife? If so, what did they learn from that experience, and what were some of the hardest parts of starting a new career?
11. The chapter lengths of Janesville seem to play their own role in setting the scene. For example, chapter 38 is a one-page chapter titled “Janesville Gypsies.” How does this function as a literary device and influence the pacing of the narrative?
12. Politics play a role in the lives of the people of Janesville, and political tensions increase over the course of the story. On page 221, there is commentary on the Republicans versus the Democrats—how the parties are bent against each other. Do you think this has changed at all in the last four years? How is it better now? How is it worse now?
13. On page 214, Judy has an encounter on Facebook with one of her nephews over politics. Have you ever had similar encounters with friends and family members?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Throughout the book, there is a lot of description of the role of nonprofits in small towns (such as the United Way on page 206), from providing groceries for families to beds for homeless teenagers. As a group, find the nearest United Way that serves your community and volunteer together.
2. On page 44, Bob is putting together a guide for all the people who have been thrown out of work or who will be soon. He takes a moment to include tips on trying to cope emotionally with being laid off. One of the fourteen points is “Don’t Feel Ashamed,” with a reminder that “Being laid off is not your fault.” As a group, fill in what you think would round out the bullet point list, drawing on your own experiences and the experiences of friends and family members.
3. As a group, listen to this interview with Amy Goldstein about her process in researching and writing Janesville. What do you find surprising? Does she reveal anything that you wish she had included in the book?
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 2, 2018)
- Length: 368 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501102264
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Raves and Reviews
“The most illuminating business book of the year.... If you really want to understand what’s going on in today’s real economy — beyond the headlines about new stock-market highs, tax policy or the latest list of billionaires — spend some time with this true tale.”
—Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times
“Janesville is haunting in part because it’s a success story.... One is awed by the dignity and levelheadedness of its protagonists, who seem to represent the best of America.... Goldstein is a talented storyteller, and we root for her characters as, moment by moment, they try their hardest.”
—The New Yorker
“A superb feat of reportage, Janesville combines a heart-rending account of the implications of the closing on GM workers and their families with a sobering analysis of the response of the public and private sectors. The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the economy of the Rust Belt — and its implications for America’s once-proud middle class.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“We’ve been hearing a lot since the November 2016 election about the press missing The Story of a middle class losing ground, hope, and heart. But it turns out that Amy Goldstein, one of our finest reporters, was on it all along. Her vivid portrait of a quintessential American town in distress affirms Eudora Welty’s claim that 'one place understood helps us understand all places better.'”
—Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Carry Me Home
“Ms. Goldstein’s book takes its place alongside those other essential tomes of the Trump era, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Joan Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.”
“Energetically reported and sympathetically narrated.... The story of ordinary people, how they cope or don’t cope with a largely, though not entirely, unexpected economic disaster.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Goldstein gives the reader a gripping account of the GM layoff, the real loss it caused and the victims’ heroic resilience in adapting to that loss. By the end of this moving book, I wanted her to write a sequel on what might have been done to prevent the damage in the first place.”
—The Washington Post
“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community. To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”
—Robert D. Putnam, New York Times bestselling author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids
“Goldstein provides a welcome addition to the conversation on the broken social contract. Janesville is a town like countless others, and this book offers a useful cautionary tale for public officials, sociologists, economists, and engaged citizens alike.”
—The Boston Globe
“Janesville is as relevant to the moment as a breaking news bulletin. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the Great Recession and deindustrialization have disrupted social, economic and political life in the American heartland. If you want to know why 2016 happened, read this book.”
—E.J. Dionne, New York Times bestselling author of Why the Right Went Wrong
“The 2008 financial crisis is frequently reduced to a matter of statistics and graphs, which makes Goldstein’s extensive reporting so valuable and, at times, moving.... By emphasizing the effects of economic collapse on family life, Goldstein’s narrative doubles as a sort of generational saga: It humanizes the worst economic crisis of contemporary times by chronicling the enormous pressures it placed on several generations of Janesville residents.”
“Fair-minded and empathetic.... While it highlights many moments of resilience and acts of compassion, Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story also has a tragic feel. It depicts the noble striving of men and women against overpowering forces — in this case, economic ones.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Amy Goldstein was in the right place at the right time to help us understand why we no longer ‘just get along.’ Having immersed herself in Paul Ryan’s idyllic hometown after its GM plant closed forever, she illuminates disrupted lives, marriages, and childhoods as the manufacturing and strong unions that built our modern middle class fade—fracturing the community and breeding the political polarization that helped give rise to Donald Trump.”
—Sheldon Danziger, President of the Russell Sage Foundation and coauthor of America Unequal
“Meticulously reported and researched... filled with startling—and disturbing—facts and figures.”
—The Denver Post
“[Goldstein] shatters a lot of conventional wisdom.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Based on three years of probing interviews, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist Goldstein makes her literary debut with an engrossing investigation.... A simultaneously enlightening and disturbing look at working-class lives in America's heartland.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Goldstein's exhaustive, evenhanded study of the plight of America's working class through the lens of one emblematic community is deeply humane and deeply disturbing, timely and essential.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Eminently accessible, instantly absorbable, Janesville is a story of economics lived.”
—The Keen Thinker (800-CEO-READS newsletter)
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