Review: Voices from the Rust Belt

Voices from the Rust Belt

Voices from the Rust BeltAnne Trubek ed. New York: Picador, (forthcoming April 3) 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays from those living, or who have lived, in Rust Belt cities from Buffalo to Chicago, and Flint, Michigan to Moundsville, West Virginia.

I grew up in the archetypal Rust Belt town of Youngstown and write about that experience (you can find all my posts in the “On Youngstown” category on my blog). I left before it acquired the Rust Belt name, in 1976. Back then, it was the “industrial heartland” until the industrial part was gutted in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I witnessed the effects in three of the cities I’ve lived in, Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown, and so was naturally interested in reviewing this collection of essays from those with connections to the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, from Chicago to Buffalo.

The book is organized into four sections, the first of which was “Growing Up,” which coincidentally opens with an essay from a fellow Youngstown native, Jacqueline Marino. She writes of childhood visits to her grandmother on South Pearl St, covering her mouth as she crossed the Market Street Bridge near the steel mills, and then the changes she saw in her grandmother’s neighborhood and the city as the mills closed, the influence of organized crime in the city (everyone played “the bug”), and the rich memories that she carries to this day of her Italian grandparents kitchen and the oasis it provided in a gritty city. The essay is followed by a Detroit native talking about white flight and the ‘kidnapped children’ who disappeared as families fled the city, a white Clevelander talking about the positive impact of busing on her life, of ethnic hatreds in a Jewish neighborhood in Buffalo, growing up on an Ohio River town home to the West Virginia Penitentiary, and the theft and recovery of a bicycle in Flint.

The second group of essays traces “Day to Day in the Rust Belt” and makes it clear there is no single Rust Belt story. There is the middle-aged social worker in Pittsburgh trying to help a down and out alcoholic when his agency cannot. There is the young life lost to street violence in Flint, the separated couple, both coming out of substance abuse, one more successfully than the other, trying to care for a daughter, remain civil with each other, and pull their lives together. There is an essay on the contrast between Buffalo “boosterism” and the black communities that are more or less left out, the odd phenomenon of a white arts culture thinking they will find salvation, as well as low rent, in Detroit. Finally, we learn about a thriving Iraqi community in Cleveland, one of many such ethnic communities aborning in the Midwest.

The third section explores “The Geography of the Heartland” beginning with a legendary gay bar in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, a visit to an old family home in Indiana (how many of us have gone back to old homesteads to find them derelict, or in my own case, vanished?), the “fauxtopia” of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and the contrast between the exurban dream Ford’s automobiles made possible, and the remnants of the city that was abandoned. Another essay attacks the artists who supplanted industrial workers in Cleveland for their pretensions when what has drawn them is the low cost of living (what is this thing against artists?). A descendent of the West Virginia McCoys reflects on the history of coal mining in the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, a couple essays reflect on urban ecologies in Chicago and Cleveland.

“Leaving or Staying”–a dilemma faced by many Rust Belt natives is the subject of the last section. A young woman describes finding a delightful neighborhood in Lakewood only to flee it due to a failed love affair. A long-time Buffalo resident talks about the toleration of ex-pats only to become one. An Akron native describes staying in the former Rubber Capital. The collection closes with a poignant narrative of a father bathing his daughter in the lead-polluted water of Flint, Michigan, and the panic when she tries to drink some and what it is like when a basic necessity like water is so dangerous.

Nearly all the essays focused on personal narrative. One stood out as taking a larger look at the challenges of renewal faced by Rust Belt cities, titled “That Better Place; or the Problem with Mobility.” Written by a Cleveland Heights native, it describes the impacts of mobility and the consequences: too much retail space, housing, stressed tax bases, persistent segregation, how school ratings become real estate marketing tools (a particular problem in Ohio) and five proposals to address these challenges.

I noted earlier that there is no single Rust Belt story. While this is true, it was also striking that all these essays describe the problems and the struggle of displacement, of “making it” for those who live in Rust Belt cities. Perhaps the most hopeful story in the collection was of “Little Iraq” in Cleveland and the white woman who was positively impacted by busing. One thing such a collection makes clear is that “turnaround” stories often can be selective with whole populations left behind due to inferior schools and persisting patterns of racialization. Yet I also wonder where are the narratives of those who have overcome the challenges of the Rust Belt, who remember the past but are not trapped in it, and are rolling up their sleeves to make the most of the new economy. The essay by Jason Segedy on loving Akron comes closest to this with his refusal to look for the Next Big Thing (a temptation in all of these cities) and instead begin with “little plans” that might be scaled up with success. I just would have liked one or two essays by those who have done what he proposes. Where are these Rust Belt stories?

The Rust Belt is in my blood, probably literally. I’ve lived in some of these places, visited most of them, and the stories in this book give a cross-section of life as it was and is that is recognizable. Yet I also wish the collection would have captured more of the dynamism of those working to reclaim neighborhoods and mixed use zoning, to start new businesses, and to build a new civic life while sustaining the rich ethnic and cultural heritages of these cities, from cuisine to high culture.

When we lived in Cleveland, I used to joke that Clevelanders actually made up the jokes about Cleveland to keep everybody else away. I wonder if it is time for narratives that are honest about the challenges, but instead of keeping people away, or resenting those like artists who come, propose how our Rust Belt cities might be good places for those up for the challenge, be they artists, activists, businesses, inventors, entrepreneurs, crafts and tradespeople–or even writers!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Death of Adam

the death of adam

The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays taking modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward its intellectual antecedents.

Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction discovers a view of life framed in older, theological modes of thought that trace back to the Reformation and beyond. Her appreciation for that framework is evident in this collection of essays that takes modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward, and often uninformed rejection of these older modes of thought. Much of this is grounded in one of the fundamental premises of Robinson’s thought–go back to the primary sources!

She demonstrates this in an introductory essay where she takes Lord Acton and others to task for misrepresenting John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as his name appears in French), often failing to actually read Calvin himself. She returns later in the collection in two essays on Marguerite of Navarre to defend Calvin against charges of religious bigotry and to recover the contribution Calvin has made to democratic ideals. In particular, she addresses the case for which Calvin is most excoriated, that of Michael Servetus, noting that Calvin was not among the civil authorities who sentenced him and that his execution for heresy was the only such to occur in Calvin’s Geneva, mostly because of the troublesome character he had been. She doesn’t excuse the execution or Calvin’s role but tries to set it in a context of a restrained policy, considering the times.

This “contrarian approach” is taken up in her initial essay on Darwinism as she explores the much more brutal human ethic of survival, selfishness, and progress, contrasted with the older one of human dignity as creatures in God’s image, as well as an understanding of human fallenness that does not excuse human evil with socio-biological explanations.

She notes the struggle of modern thought to face reality when confronted by the crises of life that raise profound questions about our existence. She writes of an older way of understanding such things:

“The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us. Oddly, people in this culture have been relatively exempt from toil and pangs and death, to, if length of life may be regarded as a kind of exemption. So why do these things seem to terrify us more than they do others? One reason might be that, as human populations go, we are old. A few decades ago the median age was in late adolescence, and now it is deep into adulthood. Midlife has overtaken the great postwar generation. So the very fact that we have, in general, enjoyed unexampled health has brought us in vast numbers into the years when even the best luck begins to run out. This is true of the whole Western world (pp. 81-82).

Two of her essays concern Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Holmes McGuffey. In the case of Bonhoeffer, we see a contrarian who withstands Nazi ideology drawing on wellsprings of an older faith. In McGuffey, whose famous readers are taken to task for bourgeois values, she observes his associations with abolitionists from Charles Finney to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane radicals of Cincinnati. His readers shaped a consciousness in the American Middle West that had no place for slavery in human society.

This is followed by a delightful essay on “Puritans and Prigs” in which she contends the Puritans were a far more joyful and liberal band that stands in contrast with modern liberal, fish-eating “priggishness’ and that the Puritans understanding of human fallenness makes room for forgiveness and the restoration of people, rather than their outright removal from society. She also challenges, in her essay on Psalm 8 the idea of the “transcendent” that has been such a part of American religious and philosophical thought. She writes”

“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous” (p. 243).

Whether writing about family or wilderness and ecology, as she does in other essays in this collection, or Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and McGuffey, Marilynne Robinson challenges modern ways of thinking about these issues and persons. Some will no doubt be angered by this, hearing in Robinson a call to return to some former repressiveness. That, I think, is to misread her. I think rather her argument may at times be one of, “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and substituting the polluted waters and questionable heroes of modernity?” What her essays do is question our intellectual conventions, and suggest that we may not want to believe everything we’ve been told in school.

Review: When I Was a Child I Read Books

when I was a child

When I Was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2013.

Summary: A collection of essays reflecting on the state of the nation and our culture, the values of literacy, liberality, and Christian generosity that have shaped us, and what the loss of these values to austerity, utility, and secularist atheism might mean for us.

As a life-long bibliophile, this book had me at the title. I thought, “you, too?” More than this, I’ve delighted in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, having read Gilead, Home, and Lila (reviewed here. As an accomplished writer who combines theological acuity with a keen eye to the character of our culture, she has become something of a public intellectual, so much so that she was even interviewed by Barack Obama. And several years ago, I had a chance to hear her speak at Northwestern University, a delightful evening I recounted in this blog post. But I had never read any of her essays.

This is a wide-ranging collection. If I could identify any recurring themes, they would be the current state of the American experiment and a rebuttal of recent writers who seem determined to cast Christian faith and its biblical underpinnings in the worst light to suggest that these ideas might be relegated to the dustbin of history for a new, more enlightened atheist materialism. And then there was one essay (“Who Was Oberlin?”) that sort of fits both and neither, but that as an Ohioan, I enjoyed. It turns out that Oberlin was a social activist pastor from Strasbourg, Germany, who came to the American Midwest and started a college in the marshy lands between Cleveland and Sandusky, fulfilling its activist roots when the abolitionist Lane Rebels from Cincinnati joined with revivalist Charles Finney to make Oberlin a center of activism.

The title essay explores her reading of the writers of the American West and the kind resilient individualism of the homesteaders that is being lost to our detriment, she believes. Yet for her, this individualism is not an “every person for oneself” outlook. She writes trenchantly against the emphasis on austerity, and rational utility, that frames everything these days from social policy to the commodification of higher education that sees little utility in the study of foreign languages or classics. Important for her is the quality of imagination, practiced in her writing that allows characters to take shape and begins to imagine how they might respond to different turns of plot. This quality is important in real human communities, in our understanding of the “other.”

Two of her essays concern Moses: “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses.” In both, she takes on contemporary writers and scholars who would lay everything wrong in our civilization at the feet of Moses and other monotheists. In particular, the phrase “open wide thy hand” is important as representative of the tenor of Mosaic laws that uphold the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Critical scholars, she argues, overlook these texts, and selectively cherry pick others to fit their constructions. Likewise in her final essay on “Cosmology” she takes on atheists who use science to attack Christians and other theists.

Aside from the polemics, one of the most delightful essays, “Wondrous Love,” (also a favorite American hymn of mine), speaks of the power of many of the old American hymns. I was caught off guard, however, by her comments about one that hasn’t particularly been a favorite because it seemed a bit sentimental, “I Come to the Garden.” She writes:

“The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who ‘walked in the garden alone,’ imagines her ‘tarrying’ there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of a dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, Let there be light.’ The song acknowledges this with fine understatement: ‘The joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known.’ Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’s as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’s passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world” (p. 125).

I will never think of this gospel passage nor hear this song in quite the same way again! She does turn later in the essay to things political and makes an interesting observation that we often close public messages with “God bless America” but rarely do we affirm how God has blessed America–that we may have far more cause for gratitude than we often acknowledge.

This essay illustrates something that I encountered in a number of these essays. Where Robinson begins, and where she ends, and how she gets there is often a circuitous process. One feels you are on a ramble, perhaps a marvelous and sparkling ramble, and in the end, you can see how the various stages of the journey all connect, but this is often not where one starts, or necessarily where one expected to have gone.

Robinson’s is a distinctive voice. On many things, she sounds a bit the Obama liberal and in fact speaks critically of one of my favorite commentators, David Brooks. And then she writes of Calvin, and Moses, and takes on forces from Freud and Skinner to the new atheists. I suspect just about everyone gets mad at her at points! Perhaps the best explanation, and a good place to end, are her opening words, in the essay “Freedom of Thought”:

“Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what humans are and how human life should be understood” (p. 3).

Review: Praying at Burger King

praying-at-burger-kingPraying at Burger KingRichard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Summary: Short essays on the life of faith in the world, originally appearing on, and several other publications.

Richard Mouw is the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and one of the more thoughtful and irenic commentators in evangelicalism today. This little book, with its unusual title and book cover is a great way to get acquainted with Mouw. He has collected a number of short (most are three pages or so) essays from contributions to Christianity Today, Perspectives, and posts on his blog and on

The essays are grouped under three categories: living, believing, and church and world. They are written in a conversational style yet cast a fresh light on some familiar aspect of Christian faith. The title essay has to do with the practice of prayers before meals, and Mouw’s recognition that Burger King is one of those places where God is indeed present and so he will keep acknowledging that. The next essay gives equal time to competitor McDonald’s and an insight of how important it is to talk with youth that translates into caring for the indifferent youth who is serving his burger the next time he is at the airport McDonald’s. Subsequent essays in this first section include reflections on Halloween, Lent, Machiavelli, integrity, greed and a number of other everyday matters from housekeeping to the “ordinary” work of a researcher. He speaks simply about how we often subconsciously bracket off the “stuff” of scholarly work from the “spiritual” life when in fact “every square inch” (as Kuyper would put it) belongs to the Lord.

In the second section, three essays caught my attention. In “Entrenched” he observes how this label is often applied to conservatives when in fact everyone is interested in “conserving something” and may be liable to trench digging. He proposes that we might consider a better, more biblical metaphor of “the way” in which we’ve chosen to walk through life, something we are all doing, whether or not we are all walking in the same way. In “He Did Weep,” he writes about Jesus not simply at Lazarus tomb, but in the manger at Christmas. True incarnation involved a crying baby, experiencing the discomforts of all human babies, contrary to “Away in a Manger.”  His sensitive response to a student’s troubled questions in “What about Hell?” and the distinction he made between those who think they are too good to be condemned by God, and those who consider God too good to punish are responses I will remember for similar conversations.

In the third section, his essay on “Eating Alone,” inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone notes the great dangers that come to us in our increasing isolation from social organizations, the mediating institutions, that once were a significant part of the fabric of belonging. I’m surprised how many writers are sounding this theme, which may truly be one of the great perils of our age. He also includes some beautiful essays about his encounters with Catholicism and some thoughts about “Patriotism” that are balanced and measured and worthy of consideration wherever you are on the political spectrum.

Mouw’s irenic voice is one we need in our time of ambivalent triumphalism on one side and anguished resistance on another. He explores the everyday acts of faithful Christian presence in the real world we inhabit. These essays feel to me to be “dispatches from another place” than where we usually live that call us to both our true selves, and the true north of our faith.