As a little girl in Cleveland, Eliese Colette Goldbach could often see the rust-colored buildings of the city’s steel plant in the distance when she rode through town with her father. The sprawling mill dominated the landscape, filling the air with the sulfur smell of rotten eggs or burnt rubber, and she would hold her nose as they drove past.
The mill was “a part of my landscape … much like the mountains of the Rockies or the cornfields of Iowa,” she writes. She never expected the plant to factor into her own life. Her parents were not steelworkers — her father ran a pawnshop — and Eliese’s plans included attending college and getting out of town.
But things didn’t go according to plan, and after college she found herself adrift, still in Cleveland, barely making ends meet working as a house painter. The idea of a high-paying union job began to appeal to her. She’s painted houses, she thinks. She’s climbed ladders and walked rooflines. How much harder could this be?
Hard. Very hard. Dangerously hard.
“Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit” is the story of how working at the steel plant — physical, dangerous shift work that initially terrified her — helped her grow up, calm down, find courage and stability, and move on.
Goldbach’s story has many threads, and for the most part she weaves them skillfully, pausing only a beat or two too long for lengthy explanations of the history of the steel industry, or the rise of Donald Trump.
She writes about her fraught romance with Tony, a man she loves but who is her opposite; her bipolar illness, which intensifies after she is raped in college; her pivoting political views, from conservative to liberal, which changes her relationship with her devout Catholic parents.
Politics suffuses this book, as Goldbach tries to understand why her conservative, religious parents — as well as so many of her working-class colleagues — admire Trump, who, as the book unfolds, is about to be elected president. In this, she is nuanced and thoughtful, avoiding easy conclusions or stereotypes of working-class people.
But the glowing core of this book is the steel plant. In scene after vivid scene, Goldbach brings to life the massive campus, the worn down and crotchety workers, the heat, the machinery, the dust, the physically grueling and dangerous work.
Death, or the possibility of death, is everywhere, a reminder that yes, this work is much more dangerous than painting houses. Old-timers have terrible stories to tell — a woman crushed to death by machinery, or a colleague who slipped off a walkway onto a pile of hot slag. “It just cooked him alive,” the crane operator says.
During Goldbach’s time in the mill, a worker dies of a heart attack on the plant floor, and Goldbach herself considers suicide more than once during manic-depressive episodes.
At times, she is a difficult protagonist to like — prickly and scared, and her bipolar disorder makes her paranoid and unreasonable. But as the book progresses, she unspools the terrible details of her rape and her struggles with her illness, and she slowly grows from someone who feels that she doesn’t belong in the mill — or anywhere — to a capable and confident woman.
One by one, she masters the jobs — driving forklift, skimming the dross off enormous vats of molten metal, banding huge coils of steel for shipment. The steel plant isn’t her future, she realizes when the owners shut down one of the mills and workers are reassigned. But working there changed her, and for the better.
“Back when I was a little girl whose father drove her past the mill, I saw only the ugliness,” she says. “I didn’t realize that the mill was sacred ground.”
By: Eliese Colette Goldbach.
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 310 pages, $27.99.