Roots of Steel
Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town
By Deborah Rudacille
(Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780375423680, 304pp.)
Publication Date: March 23, 2010
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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When Deborah Rudacille was a child growing up in the working-class town of Dundalk, Maryland, a worker at the local Sparrows Point steel mill made more than enough to comfortably support a family. But in the decades since, the decline of American manufacturing has put tens of thousands out of work and left the people of Dundalk pondering the broken promise of the American dream.
In Roots of Steel, Rudacille combines personal narrative, interviews with workers, and extensive research to capture the character and history of this once-prosperous community. She takes us from Sparrows Point’s nineteenth-century origins to its height in the twentieth century as one of the largest producers of steel in the world, providing the material that built America’s bridges, skyscrapers, and battleships. Throughout, Rudacille dissects the complicated racial, class, and gender politics that played out in the mill and its neighboring towns, and details both the arduous and dangerous work at the plant and the environmental cost of industrial progress to the air and waterways of the Maryland shore.
Powerful, candid, and eye-opening, Roots of Steel is a timely reminder, as the American economy seeks to restructure itself, of the people who inevitably have been left behind.
Deborah Rudacille is a science writer and the author of The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activisim, and Transgender Rights and The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
“[An] affecting portrait of a decaying loop on the Rust Belt . . . Rudacille has delivered a book that would do Studs Terkel proud, partaking of his oral-historical approach to the past at turns, imbued with his pro-labor spirit throughout. Required reading for activists and for those wondering where things went wrong for America’s working people.”
“With a rare combination of personal empathy and clear-eyed reportage, Deborah Rudacille has gone to the heart of Dundalk, Maryland and emerged with a careful, cohesive case-study of the American dream abandoned. For a relatively brief period, the United States reached its apogee on the world stage by validating its workers and their basic aspirations. In tough and unforgiving places like Baltimore’s Bethlehem Sparrows Point complex, the world’s most vibrant middle-class—indeed, a consumer class beyond any prior reckoning—was forged to fuel the economy of a great power. But now, only rust. Roots of Steel is nothing less than a chronicle of a great society unmoored, and Rudacille, at the heart of this reflection, aptly quotes the prescience of union stalwart John L. Lewis: ‘The future of labor is the future of America.’ God help us.”
—David Simon, creator of The Wire
“Deborah Rudacille’s latest book is a well-informed, engagingly written elegy to Baltimore steel as it’s gone to rust—by an excellent writer with every reason to take this story personally.”
—Madison Smartt Bell, author of Devil’s Dream and All Souls’ Rising
“Deborah Rudacille’s dirty and beautiful history of Baltimore steel is also a history of America. The steel manufactured in these Baltimore plants helped to build American icons like the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Roots of Steel is full of stories of hard work and pollution, war and unions, the American dream and bankruptcy.”
—Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody
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