The America Hiding in Plain Sight

Book review: Hidden America, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I discovered this book through the excellent New York Times Match Book column. If you’re not already familiar, people write asking for specific book recommendations based on previous favorites or highly specific genres. This one was mentioned in a social issues-themed reading list.

Hidden America began when author Laskas was writing about coal mining and ended up spending a lot of time in a mine (this piece is now the book’s first chapter). It was there that she realized how little she knew about what that controversial profession actually entails.

“They should make the ceiling higher!” I said, stupidly. “It’s like the size of a small city down here; they couldn’t put another stinkin’ elevator in?”…
The miners responded to my commentary with bored expressions. A flat gaze. An exhausted double blink that had a language all its own. It was a look that held the evocative message that would ultimately keep me in its grasp and set me off on the nine separate journeys over a two-year period that form the foundation of this book.

On this premise, of trying to break the bubble of her coastal elitism, Laskas sets out to embed with a different profession, each chapter covering her experience alongside workers and recording their stories and her observations, with some light statistics and contextual commentary.

I love books about weird or unusual jobs. But we can’t actually say that any of these jobs are weird or unusual. Realistically, they’re many of the jobs that keep the country running how we like it – oil drillers, landfill operators, air traffic controllers, cattle ranchers and female truckers, to name a few of the nine jobs profiled. I guess the Bengals cheerleaders would be the exception of unusual, but although I did elevate my knowledge of professional cheerleading from nothing to something thanks to that chapter, I also learned that it can’t really be considered a full-time job. It was an odd inclusion, but interesting in its own way. Laskas is an excellent storyteller, adept at scene-setting and detail, managing to make just about everything interesting.

What bothered me is that of course these jobs aren’t really hidden – plenty of people do this work or have friends, acquaintances, or loved ones filling these positions. It’s people like her, a Pittsburgh professor, and me, also a kind of bubble-resider, who don’t know anything about it. But at the same time the book wouldn’t exist if there weren’t enough of us who are unfamiliar with these professions. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

It just seemed that in every chapter, Laskas both describes how awed she is by the circumstances of the work, often with elaborations on cluelessness about this particular corner of the working world, or else she shares a moment with her subject where they patiently tolerate her coastal stereotypically inherent lack of knowledge about how the rest of the country works. Maybe if the title had just used another word besides “hidden”? Because they’re not hidden to everyone? Yes, I know I’m really overthinking it but something about the premise bothered me once I got into it.

Still, nit-picking aside, she usually explains her reasoning well and is open and honest about what she doesn’t know:

It was humiliating. It seemed wrong in some inexplicable way. In writing Hidden America, I wanted to make that wrongness explicable. I wanted to connect my life to the people who make it livable and, maybe, reintroduce America to some of its forgotten self.
Who are the people who pick our vegetables, grow our beef, haul our stuff to the marketplace, make our trash disappear? Moreover, how did that become such a difficult question to answer?

The chapters seem to have been written as individual essays without much overarching concept to tie them together. That mostly works fine, as they’re interesting enough explorations in this standalone form, but the book isn’t a greater look into economic or social conditions if you go into it expecting that.

Instead it excels in providing glimpses into ignored or misunderstood jobs, with the level and depth of statistics characteristic of long-form magazine journalism. It makes every chapter especially easily readable, but doesn’t dig too deeply into background and surroundings. There’s enough to give it context and still teach you something meaningful about these industries and their role in the country’s economy and social strata.

We are drilling for oil in Alaska, every hour of every day for the past thirty years, drilling in some of the most extreme conditions on earth, where the windchill can easily reach minus 98 degrees, so cold that you have to leave your pickup running twenty-four hours a day or you’ll never get it started again, where it is pitch-dark for nearly two months each winter, where people live without families, without homes, without access to so much of what most of us think of when we think of what it means to be human.
Who are these people, and how do they get the oil out of the ground? It seems, on its face, an embarrassingly simple question, and maybe that’s the point.

It has some brilliantly shining, illuminating moments that drive her purpose home – maybe the average American really doesn’t understand much about what it takes to keep our country smoothly running, and being faced with these personal, revealing, vividly-brought-to-life figures and their environments is educational and humbling. Not to mention the inclusion of some highly amusing anecdotes, especially when her subjects tell their own stories.

Ultimately I remained mildly uncomfortable with either the elitism or maybe purposeful ignorance, and although it provides some very useful statistics and context it never goes too in-depth on potentially interesting topics. Although that’s possibly a pro because occasionally I was less than fascinated with a chapter but luckily each story was quick-moving.

Some favorite quotes:

An air traffic controller at LaGuardia: I go home and my wife says, ‘Don’t boss me around like an airplane.’

Forty-seven percent of Americans report owning at least one gun; the U.S. is the most heavily armed society in the world. If an armed citizenry is a piece of our national identity, how is it that I’d never even met it?

We took a boat over from shore, and we wore hard hats and orange vests and safety glasses, and as we toured around the island, one of the workers stopped to show us a polar bear cage, a giant jail-like structure. There were ten of them placed around camp.
“Wait, why do you put the polar bears in cages?” a guy from Dallas asked.
“The cages are for the people,” the worker answered. “You see a polar bear, you ring the alarm, and jump in the cage.”

I’m inviting America to steal a glance into these worlds, some hugely complicated industries, some tiny and private contributions, to wander with me and consider the everyday anew. Everything you know about America—all the history, all the politics, all the lessons from all the economic indicators, all the arguments from the red states and the blue—is irrelevant when you are sitting in a coal mine, or staring at a radar screen showing thousands of airplanes flying at once, or wrangling five hundred pregnant Red Angus cows beneath a blazing hot desert sunrise.

Insightful, readable look at nine taken-for-granted jobs that form technical, operational, or mainstream cultural backbones in America, and a little about what we risk by ignoring their significance. Verdict: 3.5/5

Hidden America:
From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work

by Jeanne Marie Laskas
published September 13, 2012 by Penguin Putnam

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