I very much enjoyed Jeanne Marie Laskas's latest investigative book, titled Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work.
Evidently Laskas now has six books to her credit; I only knew about the one, a memoir titled Fifty Acres and a Poodle, which I read a million years ago and also enjoyed. Just recently a friend got me a gift subscription to Reader's Digest magazine (which struck both me and Mr. CR as kind of funny, since we'd never read it, but it turns out to be really entertaining bathroom reading), and I've noticed Laskas also does the advice column there. She usually shows good sense there, so when I saw this title, I thought I'd give it a go.
Laskas set out on an experiment that's been done a lot, especially in this age of "stunt" or "year in the life" memoirs--investigating what people do at their jobs. Her twist on the subject is that she investigates jobs we never really see anymore: coal miners, cowboys, oil drillers, truck drivers, etc. And she does it by sharing peoples' lives; she actually went down into the coal mine, and traveled to Alaska's north shore to stay with the guys doing the drilling. Her writing is very straightforward, which is great for this sort of investigative writing. For instance, when she first goes down in the coal mine and is surprised to find that everything is white:
"Everyone, I was told, gets jolted by the white. You try to make sense of it. 'They just paint this opening part white to cheer everyone up?' I said to Foot the first time I saw it. He didn't even dignify that guess with a response. 'It's, like, a joke?' I said. 'Irony? A little humor to start your day before you move into black?' I figured we'd hit the black part of a coal mine as soon as we moved farther in. Foot looked at me in that way he came to look at me, a stillness, a flatness to his gaze, an expression that said, You just keep turning into more of an idiot. He said, 'I think you'll find there are no aesthetic choices, nor is there irony, in a coal mine.'
The white is on account of 'rock dust,' powdered limestone, a fire retardant that you throw on every exposed inch of coal--which, were it not rock-dusted, would be spontaneous combustion waiting to happen. One small explosion could trigger a series of explosions, on and on, fwoom, fwoom, fwoom, through the mine, but not if you've got it rock-dusted." (pp. 20-21.)
I didn't love all the chapters equally (the chapter on the Ben-Gals, the cheerleaders for the Cincinnati Bengals, one of whom also doubled as a construction worker, left me particularly cold), but there was enough here to think about that I can still call it one of my favorite books of the last year. I even suggested it to the guy who runs the gas station down the road; I was having a problem getting one of the pumps to start, and when he came out to help me (which was very nice of him) we got talking about the price of gas, which I personally feel should be much, much higher. And then I proceeded to bore him by telling him about the oil drilling chapter in this book. That's just the long-winded way I roll.