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Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit

Review

Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit

In RUST: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Eliese Colette Goldbach introduces Cleveland, her hometown, a city nicknamed “the Mistake on the Lake” and an underdog town marked by a spirit of dogged perseverance. Clevelanders are a unique breed of optimism in the face of dire odds. Readying the city for the 2016 Republican National Convention, city officials erected three white signs with Cleveland written on them near the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the coast of Lake Erie, and in Tremont, a stone’s throw from the mill. More than a city of blunders and sports teams always looking ahead to next year, these signs were a showcase of Cleveland strength: rock & roll, a lake, an industry.

Goldbach begins her coming-of-age story by explaining that she was unable to get her college degree completed (because she did not correctly fill out the paperwork needed for the diploma). This failure feeds into more failure. But after a friend shows her his pay stub from the steel mill, Goldbach decides she wants her share of the American Dream: a livable wage, good benefits, union protection. She embarks on a four-month-long application process to join what would become her mill family. She gets the job.

"From the belly of the notorious steel mill, Goldbach draws us into the dirt, grime and dust, saying the only thing that shines is the steel."

Her description of the initial safety videos and the weeks of training vividly catch us at each moment. She holds her breath at the stories from the older employees about accidents that have happened, can happen and do happen. She hardens herself to some of the sexism found in its natural habitat, an almost exclusively male environment where the physical differences between men and women matter. Goldbach assures herself that the incredibly demanding work and grueling hours are stepping stones to financial stability, nothing more.

From the belly of the notorious steel mill, Goldbach draws us into the dirt, grime and dust, saying the only thing that shines is the steel. She asks questions about the intricacies of making steel, and learns how hard the Orange Hats (the on-probation workers for six months) must work to maintain credibility. She rides in and then drives a buggy (not a cart, a buggy). She also meets Dynamo, a worker with whom she is paired in the Shipping Mill, and flippantly tells the other workers that he is Cleveland. All his life he had created and painted miniature model cars, and one night his teenage classmates destroyed the cherished collection. He could’ve quit but didn’t. The devastating loss did not stop him; in fact, he created ever more intricate, glowing models. He didn’t let a few bullies take away his passion. That’s what made him Cleveland. Goldbach was right.

While this arc of her life story is first and foremost, she reaches back to her childhood to show how she arrived here. Goldbach is the second daughter in a Polish Catholic family. She hopes to be a nun, but first she wants Mary to give her a definite sign; she is a sucker for miracles. She desires to change lives and be on the cover of Time magazine. The flashbacks reveal a child of hope and great promise. She is devoted to the rigors of Catholicism and her Republican parents, and after a successful high school career, she heads to a small Franciscan college. Early in her freshman year, however, a violent act changes her life, and deep, recurring bouts of depression and illness begin.

The final arc of this memoir is Goldbach’s growing awareness of our country’s politics. She reads, argues and comes to realizations about what it means to work in the Rust Belt. That’s the thing that Trump got wrong. He didn’t see the resilience, and boiled down the insecurities of the Midwest, Cleveland especially, to its worst parts. He viewed industrial workers as a down-and-out people, and let them believe that being down-and-out was their own identity. He offered scapegoats and outrage, and crippled the good in them. Her explanations to her parents and fellow steel workers become arguments.

The vibrant orange flame shooting above the Cleveland steel mill comes to represent the history, the mill family, the fight for fairness and equality. As Goldbach visits other cities and returns home to the flame, she realizes that she doesn’t know much about others and how easy it is not to see. And how easy it is not to look.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on March 13, 2020

Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit
by Eliese Colette Goldbach

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250239400
  • ISBN-13: 9781250239402