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Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work Paperback – September 3, 2013
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“A literary miracle. In effortlessly lucid prose, Laskas tells stories that spellbind precisely because they remind us of the center that quietly holds America together.”—Robert Draper, author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do
“In this thoroughly entertaining study of what some people do that other people would never do, journalist Laskas makes her subjects sing.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Each of these profiles rings true.”—*The Huffington Post
“At a time when American workers seem most prized for their ability to serve as campaign props, Hidden America comes as a breath of fresh air with no political slant, no hidden motive.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Hearing [these] voices, it’s impossible not to see the world a little differently.”—The Daily Beast, Hot Read
“It’s not a stretch to use the name Studs Terkel in the same sentence with the name Jeanne Marie Laskas. She’s one hell of a journalist, a world-class storyteller. This is not just a good read, it’s an important one.”—Linda Ellerbee
“At once heartwarming, funny, sad, ironic, and most of all, insightful.”—Bob Schieffer
“A finely crafted look behind the curtains of everyday life—think Dirty Jobs for the literate set.”—Mike Sager, author of The Someone You’re Not
“A wondrous book, fierce and intimate in its investigations...Like Studs Terkel if he wrote novels and Tom Wolfe if he wrote about working folk.”—Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies and The Signal
About the Author
Jeanne Marie Laskas is the New York Times bestselling author of six books including Hidden America and Concussion, which inspired the Golden Globe-nominated film. Formerly a contributing editor at Esquire, and a syndicated weekly columnist at The Washington Post Magazine, she has been writing for national magazines for 20 years, with work appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Allure, Ladies Home Journal, and many others. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Best American Magazine Writing 2008 and Best American Sportswriting 2000, 2002, 2008, 2010 and 2012. She has won more than a dozen Gold Quill awards for Excellence in Journalism, and her piece about coal mining, “Underworld,” was a finalist in feature writing for the 2007 National Magazine Awards. Her earliest essays and features are compiled in The Balloon Lady and Other People I Know.
Laskas writes regularly for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ, where she is a correspondent. She is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is director of The Writing Program, and founding director of The Center for Creativity. She lives on a horse farm with her husband and two daughters.
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The idea for HIDDEN AMERICA came from an article Laskas wrote for GQ about coal miners, and she includes them in her investigation. She also interviews migrant workers, NFL cheerleaders, air traffic controllers, gun dealers, red angus ranchers, Alaskan oil rig workers, a female truck driver, and land fill workers.
Considering the constant danger, the coal miners were very funny. One of them wore size thirteen shoes; so his nickname became "Foot". They all had nicknames. It was also surprising how much money they made; they could earn up to $90,000 a year in a non-union mine. One of them was a college graduate who swore he'd never work in the mines, but the money was too good to pass up. Also, despite what the politicians say, coal is doing better than they ever have before, at least when Laskas wrote the book it was. For instance, 70% of China's factories draw their power from coal.
The Cincinnati Ben-Gal cheerleaders were also surprising. Their numbers are drawn from some unique sources. One was a scientist; another was a construction worker. When asked why she tried out, the scientist said, "Who wouldn't want to be a Ben-Gal?" The construction worker was chosen cheerleader of the week and got her picture and bio put up on the scoreboard. She got so excited she overslept for the game and was replaced, but the director gave her another chance. So then, the motivation seems to be similar with all the girls. They're not there to trap a man; players aren't allowed near the girls; they just want to be somebody, if only for a little while.
Perhaps the most charismatic character in the book was the female truck driver, nicknamed "Sputter." We're introduced to her as she's driving down the road trying to stay awake. Her solution is to go braless and to turn on the lights in the cab to show the other truckers.
The landfill workers weren't what you'd expect either, nor was the landfill itself. Puente Hills Landfill, just outside Los Angeles pipes the methane out of the landfill to a generator that provides power for a middle-sized city. You'd also never know the place was a landfill if you didn't know it was there. The engineers built a verge with trees and flowers on the boundary to hide its existence. Civil engineer Joe Haworth has been around the landfill since its inception. He was one of those who came up with the idea to use the methane as a power source. He sees the landfill as a life lesson. Nature teaches us that everything is recycled. He doesn't really believe in God, but nature seems to imply that when we die, it's not the end. We are such things as stars are made of. In 2013, Puente Hills will close and Los Angeles' garbage will be hauled by rail into the desert; this will be more expensive, but even more of the garbage will be recycled.
I guess what I learned from the book is that people tend to elevate their jobs. The migrant workers, for instance, wound up in Maine, raking blueberries. These are natural blueberries. The best. People from all over Maine used to help pick the berries when they were in season. They still hold Blueberry festivals, but, according to the migrant workers, most Americans are too lazy to pick them. They're missing out on something that would have connected them to their ancestors as well as other people of every stripe.
Laskas will also throw in the occasional factoid. Despite what politicians and TV journalists say, the number of illegals entering the country is down. It's getting too hard for the migrant workers, over half of whom are illegal, to get back into the country, so they stay. Some haven't been home for years. And American growers wouldn't be able to harvest their crops without them.