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Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People W ho Make This Country Work Hardcover – September 13, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Jeanne Marie Laskas is a reporting and writing powerhouse. With beauty, wit, curiosity, and grace, she doesn’t just interview the people who dig our coal and extract our oil, she goes deep into the mines and tundra with them. She goes nationwide to find the hidden soul of America, the people we depend on most but know the least. She tells the story of the United States from deep inside the machinery that makes it work. Hidden America is essential reading.”—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“In this thoroughly entertaining study of what some people do that other people would never do, journalist Laskas makes her subjects sing. Some homes in on jobs that the rest of us take for granted—or deny exist—interviewing the people who perform and even like onerous tasks: coal miners, Latino migrant laborers, La Guardia air traffic controllers, Arizona gun dealers, Texas ranchers . . . Refreshingly, Laskas eschews sentimentality but imbues her portraits with humanity and authenticity . . . Laskas’s depications are sharply delineated, fully fleshed, and enormously affecting.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Jeanne Marie Laskas has spent years finding and listening to the people we can’t do without, but sometimes forget are there. What they told her is at once heart-warming, funny, sad, ironic, and, most of all, insightful. She is a wonderful listener who gives us new and better perspective on what keeps America working. A fine piece of reporting and writing – a ride well worth taking.”—Bob Schieffer

“It’s not a stretch to use the name Studs Terkel in the same sentence with the name Jean Marie Laskas. She’s one hell of a journalist, a world-class storyteller who takes us where we may not want to go, then makes us grateful we took the trip. Hidden America is not just a good read, it’s an important one.”—Linda Ellerbee

Hidden America is a literary miracle. In effortlessly lucid prose, Jeanne Marie Laskas tells stories that spellbind precisely because they remind us of the center that quietly holds America together. You will fall in love with, want to have a beer with, and maybe shed a tear for, her entire cast of obscure heroes.”—Robert Draper, author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do and Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush

“Jeanne Marie Laskas has for years taken her readers inside the lives of ordinary people with her intimate, insightful journalism. Hidden America is a finely crafted look behind the curtains of everyday life – think Dirty Jobs for the literate set.”—Mike Sager, author of Wounded Warriors

Praise for Jeanne Marie Laskas

"A wonderful writer, smart as they come, and a real joy to read."—Annie Dillard

"Laskas is the thinking woman's Erma Bombeck [with] a talent for finding wisdom in everyday life."—Andrea Sachs, Time.com

"Fresh, funny and perceptive, salted with that fine edge of irony and self-deprecation that makes you laugh at her and yourself, and just the basic craziness of her life. She can move you to tears, or make you blow tea out your nose with unexpected laughter."—Tom Schroder, Washington Post

"A formidable reporter and one damn fine writer."—Esquire

About the Author

Jeanne Marie Laskas is the director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in many publications, including GQ, where her exploration of coal miners was a finalist for the National Magazine Awards, and The Washington Post Magazine, where her long-running weekly column, “Significant Others,” was the basis for a trilogy of memoirs. She lives in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons; First Edition edition (September 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399159002
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399159008
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #228,539 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
It's the first question you ask when you meet someone - "What do you do?" Teacher, police officer, grocery checker, we know what these jobs look like, how they are important. Jeanne Marie Laskas decided to look at the jobs that we don't see, the ones that we rarely think about that are fundamental to the way we live. Coal miners, sanitation workers, migrant workers, keeping the energy flowing, the garbage hidden, the produce cheap.

Hidden America reads like a collection of magazine articles, and you can read them in any order. Laskas opens with the coal miner chapter, and it is certainly the most dramatic. We don't think about miners except when there's a mine accident or a strike. Laskas spends a few months with the miners, 500 feet below the surface. She describes the 5-foot high tunnels that the men work in, the unsettling cracking sounds the earth makes down there, the claustrophobic atmosphere and the stories the miners tell of accidents they've experienced or just barely avoided. She repeatedly asks the men if there's anything they like about the work, and they change the subject, answering the question by avoiding it.

I especially enjoyed the profile of air traffic controllers at LaGuardia. As a former controller, I found Laskas's description perfectly accurate. She captures the way the controllers talk, how they are risk-averse not only in their work, but in their own lives, and how the constant battle between the union and management takes its toll on them.

The chapters are not uniformly excellent - the one on migrant workers didn't hold my attention.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book could have been wonderful. The theme, and the actual occupations the author has selected, are unusual and interesting. Unfortunately, the book is about 40% interesting material, and 60% fluff and filler. I would have liked to have learned more about life on an oil rig, and in a coal mine, and as an air traffic controller. But the author decided to use an artificial, gritty 'badass' (to use one of her favorite adjectives) voice, and dumbed down the book and, even worse, her subjects to almost cartoon level.

It's still an interesting read, since the subject matter is compelling, but be prepared to skip large sections of text to avoid the tedium of her prose, and the considerable amount of filler.
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Format: Paperback
"This is not a place for people, this is not a place for people, this is not a place for people."

That thought pounded at Laskas while she descended deep into an Ohio coal mine, and it likely came to her several times more during her research into this collection's nine essays that profile people working at jobs relatively unknown to the general public. There are coal miners; migrant farm workers; NFL cheerleaders; air-traffic controllers; gun-store sales clerks; beef ranchers; oil-rig workers; long-haul truck drivers; and garbage landfill workers.

I love anything workplace-based and was excited to read this. But between the time I acquired it and began to read it, I happened to read the essay about the truck driver in O Magazine ... and was disappointed. So disappointed that I mostly put off reading the book for a year. Having finished it now, I rate it "okay," 3 stars; easy to read, portions interesting, large portions I wanted to skip.

As the subtitle suggests, these are profiles of the workers and their lives/lifestyles, with less about the actual work/workplace. Only two primarily profile a woman (the cheerleader and the truck driver), and the cheerleader piece is terrible and seems wholly out of place in this collection that's otherwise about America's infrastructure (as does the gun-store piece, although it was my favorite).

Although not exactly the same concept, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed much more.
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Format: Hardcover
Hidden America is an eye-opening journey into the vocational worlds that most people never consider, including many that provide the power and resources that enable our current quality of life. Laskas enters worlds normally off limits to journalists, including a coal mine in Ohio, an oil rig in Alaska, an air traffic control tower in New York, a migrant worker camp in Maine, a ranch in Texas, and a landfill in California. Additionally, she spends time in a gun shop in Arizona, with cheerleaders in Ohio, and with a trucker in Iowa. While seven of the nine chapters are reworked editions of content that originally appeared in GQ or Smithsonian, the book works well as a collection of essays. The diverse people she observes and interacts with who make this country work are employed in physically demanding jobs with responsibilities that differ widely from career paths most consider, yet almost everyone she encounters appreciates and takes pride in his or her work.

Hidden America is at once easy and difficult to read: easy as Laskas is an effective story teller; difficult as the work being done to enable the consumer lifestyle of an upwardly mobile society challenges assumptions and, at least for some, the validity of the existing norms. It is important to enter the everyday worlds of those who labor to provide food and energy rather than to learn of such only in light of and through the lens of tragedy.
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