Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

Janesville: An American Story

“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.” —The New York TimesA Washington Post reporter’s intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors’ assembly plant in Janesville...

Title:Janesville: An American Story
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:1501102230
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:368 pages

Janesville: An American Story Reviews

  • Jen Naughton
    Feb 28, 2017

    Amy Goldstein is a Washington Press reporter, and this reads like an extremely long personal interest piece. It follows a handful of Janesville residents from roughly 2007-2016 at a time when many of them felt as if their world was crashing down around them. Cities like Janesville all across America were once middle-class meccas. Places while although they were rural allowed hard working people to achieve the American dream with just a high school diploma. Most couples working at the GM plant co

    Amy Goldstein is a Washington Press reporter, and this reads like an extremely long personal interest piece. It follows a handful of Janesville residents from roughly 2007-2016 at a time when many of them felt as if their world was crashing down around them. Cities like Janesville all across America were once middle-class meccas. Places while although they were rural allowed hard working people to achieve the American dream with just a high school diploma. Most couples working at the GM plant could easily afford a mortgage, cars, camper or boat and probably a Harley in the garage. They could take a vacation each year. Basically the American Dream. They had the union at their back, and the town itself was like most small towns in that your neighbors would help you if you needed it.

    When the GM factory shut down that all changed. Not overnight. Slowly like going down a terribly long slide that doesn't seem to end. Most people thought the plant would eventually get re-tooled for another kind of vehicle. And so, the reality of their actual situation unfolded slowly over a decade.

    One note from me: I'm not a Trump supporter. What I did take from this book is that many people who voted for him probably didn't like him much either. What Trump did do is show up and promise the manufacturing jobs that they desperately want. Desperate times call for desperate measures. People in Janesville and other decimated manufacturing cities around the US do not want a handout. They are ready and willing to work, many went back to school to train for new careers that as it turned out also aren't hiring. They need health care and other basics that should be a given in America.

    I don't know what the solution is at this point, but this story is heartbreaking, and it's happening here today in America.

  • Rachel Blakeman
    Jun 21, 2017

    This is a solid 4-star book. It was what I was hoping "Glass House" was going to be but wasn't. Despite what my profile says, I live in Fort Wayne so I felt a geographic connection to the storyline for the GM gypsies and the descriptions about Fort Wayne although limited were accurate. Like the comment on the back cover from Robert Putnam says, this is an extension of the themes in "Hillbilly Elegy" but on a community-wide level.

    I have lived my entire life in the industrial Midwest where I have

    This is a solid 4-star book. It was what I was hoping "Glass House" was going to be but wasn't. Despite what my profile says, I live in Fort Wayne so I felt a geographic connection to the storyline for the GM gypsies and the descriptions about Fort Wayne although limited were accurate. Like the comment on the back cover from Robert Putnam says, this is an extension of the themes in "Hillbilly Elegy" but on a community-wide level.

    I have lived my entire life in the industrial Midwest where I have watched good-paying low-skill jobs dry up. This was an insight into the lives of rural, white working class folks that are facing a new and unpleasant economic reality. The characters make it read like a novel. Highly recommend for my fellow Midwesterners and people who want to understand the slow roll of decline.

  • The Pfaeffle Journal
    May 06, 2017

    This is a great book, very well done. I highly recommend it.

  • Rick
    May 17, 2017

    “Janesville: An American Story” by Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein is a thought-provoking tale of the closing of the major employer in a city of roughly 60,000 and the economic disaster that resulted. The linchpin of the story is the closing of the Janesville, Wisconsin General Motors assembly plant in late 2008…right at the height of the recent recession.

    As you read the narrative you catch yourself trying to figure out who or what caused this economic catastrophe…where does the blame

    “Janesville: An American Story” by Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein is a thought-provoking tale of the closing of the major employer in a city of roughly 60,000 and the economic disaster that resulted. The linchpin of the story is the closing of the Janesville, Wisconsin General Motors assembly plant in late 2008…right at the height of the recent recession.

    As you read the narrative you catch yourself trying to figure out who or what caused this economic catastrophe…where does the blame lie? Was it the unions with their constant efforts to push employee standards of living higher and higher? Was it the insensitive corporate organization that showed no loyalty and abandoned the area after 80 some years as an employer? Was it the drive by corporate management to outsource work to less expensive areas of the country and newer plants, or even outside to Mexico and the like? Was it the 2007 recession that began when the mortgage bubble created by sloppy mortgage banking standards exploded and almost took down Wall Street? Was it just another event in the demise of the middle-class, those without college education and the portability of skills—such as what happened years ago to the steel industry? Was it because government largess was not used to shore up the problem in a way to safeguard jobs? What was it?

    This engrossing story doesn’t answer the question—and one soon comes to the determination that all share in the fault and no one alone is to blame. The account covers the human upheaval that results…how retraining isn’t really the solution…how while some employees are offered positions at other plants, the majority are left out in the cold…how there is a domino effect on other businesses in Janesville when the major employer shuts down.

    While the Janesville story was not uplifting, it was an excellent piece of reporting on current events, and one that could be extrapolated to other areas of the country…this could happen to your neighborhood. Goldstein the journalist writes as she reports…many chapters that are short and snappy. This was good reading of a sad time.

  • Robert
    May 21, 2017

    Amy Goldstein's Janesville, An American Story reports on the anguish of modest American dreams gasping their last in the hometown of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Janesville, Wisconsin, once was a manufacturing town. Parker Pen originated there (and was shuttered there). GM built cars and SUVs there, and then as the 70s, 80s, and 90s turned into 2008, thousands of jobs disappeared when the last enormous Chevy Tahoe rolled off the assembly line and GM, forced into bankruptcy, closed its Ja

    Amy Goldstein's Janesville, An American Story reports on the anguish of modest American dreams gasping their last in the hometown of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Janesville, Wisconsin, once was a manufacturing town. Parker Pen originated there (and was shuttered there). GM built cars and SUVs there, and then as the 70s, 80s, and 90s turned into 2008, thousands of jobs disappeared when the last enormous Chevy Tahoe rolled off the assembly line and GM, forced into bankruptcy, closed its Janesville plant and sank, at the same time, the many parts suppliers that fed it.

    Goldstein's Janesville proceeds by narrating the consequences for Parker and GM "families." Real teenagers were abandoned by their parents, real moms committed suicide, real husbands had to take jobs 280 miles away (spending 2 days a week with their families back in Janesville), and real social activists--teachers, job training directors, health care volunteers--barely sustained ever-diminishing programs designed to help folks keep their houses, deal with their diabetes, and cope with mental exhaustion and illness.

    This is fact, not fiction. Red brick towns all over America have been, for decades now, deindustrialized, abandoned by large corporations, sold out by unions, and hollowed out by big box stores that decimated Main Street. We all know this, don't we? But Goldstein puts an unforgettable face on the discouraging decay, the happy-talk tough love of politicians like Paul Ryan and Governor Scott Walker, and the loss of small town soul in the hinterland.

    Janesville became a moral slum, a canyon with the majority crushed by their financial shortfalls at the bottom and the minority, the small minority, doing just fine up on the cliffs above disaster. The Chamber of Commerce crowd crowed that by 2015 Janesville was back. The retrained, underpaid exiles from manufacturing knew better, their kids knew better, their doctors and the coroner knew better.

    Goldstein traces the year-by-year efforts dozens of residents made to rebrand and renew Janesville, but in a sense, Paul Ryan's refusal to ever visit Janesville's struggling job retraining center symbolized their failure. He became Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan not by looking the facts in the face, but by deciding, correctly, that he could afford to lose the vote in his hometown and still win...small town boy faking compassion by focusing on budget cutting in Washington to give the rich a better chance to get richer.

    We go back to that sinister capitalist phrase, Schumpeter's "creative destruction, and sadly are able to see only destruction, nothing creative. We hear Trump's harrumphing about bringing back the jobs and already can see he has no desire to really focus on that (or any idea how). And then we read page after page of this book and face the fact, again, that yes, a GM can and will fail, and no, we have no national response.

    The fundamentals of life--acutely and painfully highlighted from 2008 on and woven throughout Goldstein's text--are obvious: people need protection from rapist banks and cynical financial manipulators, children need quality education, and everyone needs access to affordable healthcare. Obama did his best; he even bailed out GM; but we have succumbed to multigenerational greed and mismanagement, and it's going to take multigenerational effort to put things right...if we ever do.

    The Janesville Goldstein presents is unrecognizable to its residents. They cannot imagine a Labor Day parade float featuring homeless teenagers. They cannot believe the food bank shuts its doors after forty families are provisioned when the need runs into the hundreds. Well-intentioned and even ambitious civic efforts are made to reverse the town's plummeting fortunes, but tragically, the local billionaire contributes more to the Republican budget cutters than she does to her own local initiatives.

    We have known this was coming. Goldstein is not the first journalist to give us the news. Edmund Wilson described our Depresson-era misery in the 1930s. Michael Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States in 1962. And of course LBJ and RFK made a stab at advancing a War on Poverty later in the 1960s. But we are not, we keep telling ourselves, a poor country, we are a rich country. But that's only true in terms of dollars and defense budgets, not in terms of common sense or morality.

  • Daniel
    Jun 14, 2017

    Sometimes, at the library, I’ll pick up a book at random based solely on the cover or the title and start reading it, ignoring the dust jacket and blurbs on the back. That’s what I did with Janesville—and I’m so glad I did. Were I asked, “Want to read a book about a town in Wisconsin that suffered after a GM plant closed?” I would have passed, not out of coldheartedness but because there are only so many hours in the day to read what grabs us.

    This book is a great achievement for several reasons.

    Sometimes, at the library, I’ll pick up a book at random based solely on the cover or the title and start reading it, ignoring the dust jacket and blurbs on the back. That’s what I did with Janesville—and I’m so glad I did. Were I asked, “Want to read a book about a town in Wisconsin that suffered after a GM plant closed?” I would have passed, not out of coldheartedness but because there are only so many hours in the day to read what grabs us.

    This book is a great achievement for several reasons. The structure and interweaving narratives are handled skillfully—and by focusing on this array of people. Goldstein offer a mosaic of life after the plant’s closing. It’s also, in its style, an example of the clarity that Strunk and White urged on all of us.

    What I found most remarkable, however, was the nearly-apolitical stance from which the tale is told. So much writing about economics and the nation’s current challenges is marked by finger-pointing. I never got a sense of that from this book. She doesn't point fingers; she gestures towards a display of people. I was surprised to read the blurbs on the back, which (I think falsely) characterize Janesville as a political anti-Trump screed. It's not, so if you're hoping to read something you can use as ammo against your cousin who's a Trump supporter, you'll be disappointed. The book is so much better than that.

  • Monica
    Jun 29, 2017

    Wow. Such a great, multifaceted account of what happened in Janesville. Super easy to read and the people are so interesting.

  • Rachel
    Jun 20, 2017

    updated to include some information the author missed in her telling (last 3 paragraphs).

    I started reading this because I grew up near Janesville and my father-in-law's job was related to GM. He passed away before the layoffs of this book. Growing up we'd drive 20 minutes to Janesville to see a movie, go to the mall, or go to Woodman's and I remember my high school social studies teacher lamenting that she should have taken a job at GM to make better money than she did teaching (she told us this

    updated to include some information the author missed in her telling (last 3 paragraphs).

    I started reading this because I grew up near Janesville and my father-in-law's job was related to GM. He passed away before the layoffs of this book. Growing up we'd drive 20 minutes to Janesville to see a movie, go to the mall, or go to Woodman's and I remember my high school social studies teacher lamenting that she should have taken a job at GM to make better money than she did teaching (she told us this while ostensibly teaching).

    I didn't find much in this book that was a revelation, except that I didn't know the history of Parker Pen. The basic take away is that union jobs provide security and folks we're both surprised and in bad shape after the plant closed. The book reinforced the hardships of living close to the poverty line, struggling to find a good job and making tough choices.

    The book closely followed several different Janesville workers for the years after the closing. Most folks were worse off, even if they were able to transfer at GM or get another job with benefits.

    One of the strangest things, I thought, was how folks would commute to a GM job in Indiana and back every weekend while the wife and kids stayed in Janesville. Janesville is not that great, folks, just move! You can visit the relatives via the same drive, but you don't utterly burn yourself out and spend on two homes and all that driving. It boggles my mind. After I finished the book, I talked to someone from the area and she said most of her friends left the state after GM. Generally these were younger people. They weren't really mentioned in the book, which is, of course, about people in Janesville, not those who left.

    After I finished the book, I wanted to get other opinions on some of the books' assertions. Throughout the book the author continually referred to Janesville's apparently well-known history of everybody getting along (the author suggested this was people of different political persuasions getting along) and the populations history of supporting charity giving within the city. But something the author doesn't mention is that the city banned African American people from living in the city until the 70s! The author does make repeated references to the "Irish Mafia" meaning JP Cullen's owners and the Ryan family. During the reading I thought that it was odd to refer to mafia and not mean violence and oppressive control. Suddenly, though, a city controlled by an Irish faction, one with limited (and historically enforced) racial diversity, and good jobs (GM), looks like a place where you'd expect harmony and charity.

    But the racial exclusion impacts another reading of the book. In the book, the author mentions the rivalry between Janesville and Beloit. She suggests it's kind of a cute regional rivalry, but Beloit has a fairly large African American population, brought to Wisconsin, in part, during the Black Migration of 1915-1970 (

    is great read, by the way). What I also found out after reading the book is that black folks who worked at GM Janseville tended to live in Beloit. Suddenly the cute rivalry between the cities looks a lot more like a racial division developed because Janesville kept these workers out of their city.

    So here's my problem with the book: how did this not come up in the author's research? I'm not trying to give everything a seedy underbelly, but American history is chock full of segregation, discrimination, separation, and economic division that involve race and otherness. It cannot be left out and when it is left out of a history of a place and a community of people, it makes it harder for us readers of history to make connections and recognize problems or understand what happened or what is happening.

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