When Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein began paying attention to Janesville, Wis., the dominoes had started to fall in that city. General Motors, the dominant employer as operator of an automobile assembly factory, announced that the plant would close two days before Christmas 2008.
The falling dominoes consisted of not only factory employees losing their livelihood, but also businesses that supplied General Motors with goods and services; retail stores that would lose cash-poor customers; public schools that would lose tax payments; career retraining programs that would become overwhelmed by demand; government unemployment benefit offices that had not budgeted for a massive influx; law enforcement agencies dealing with crimes hatched from desperation; suicide hot lines receiving an alarming increase in calls, and child welfare agencies without enough shelter beds.
Taking a leave from the newspaper, Goldstein immersed herself in Janesville life; the book chronicles a five-year span through 2013. But instead of focusing completely on the devastation to the Janesville economy, she decided to intermingle the dominoes falling with a narrative of hope, an alternate emphasis on the Janesville faithful who plotted a revival.
Her cast of major characters includes three families dependent on GM paychecks, three workers with other Janesville employers adversely affected by the factory shutdown, three educators, a banker, a wealthy businesswoman/philanthropist, a job retraining center director, a radio talk show host and two politicians.
A major attraction of writing about the Janesville saga is tied to Washington, D.C. — Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a Janesville native.
Before the plant closed, Ryan could legitimately be called a local hero, a hometown guy made good; he was liked by many Democrats as well as Republicans. When Ryan could not negotiate the plant’s reopening, however, some of his luster faded. Goldstein portrays the ups and downs of Ryan in Janesville and Washington with great acuity.
The stars of the book are the less famous folks. When authors try to juggle so many major characters in one book, the narrative drive often suffers, and the characters never come to life. Goldstein avoids those pitfalls, and the mostly chronological saga never loses its zip.
Along the way, she shatters a lot of conventional wisdom.
For example, the job retraining programs lauded by politicians often disappoint. Generosity offered by neighbors often does not play well when it looks like charity. And, perhaps most devastating of all, those lost high-paying jobs are not coming back.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo., and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Janesville: An American Story
By: Amy Goldstein.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $27.
Event: 7 p.m. May 2, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.