There are some 154 million American workers today, according to the Department of Labor. It doesn't take a math major to know that American workers spend countless hours behind desks, on the assembly line, or ringing up purchases at the mall. In "Hidden America," Jeanne Marie Laskas profiles just a handful of those workers, but in the process, she puts a stethoscope on the heart of the American work experience.
Like a modern-day Studs Terkel, Ms. Laskas, who lives in Washington County, crafts intricate profiles about the men and women who labor -- generally out of sight -- in order to power our homes or get food to the supermarket. The profiling of rather hidden professions (coal miners, cattle ranchers, blueberry pickers) is intentional. As Ms. Laskas writes, "I'm inviting America to steal a glance into these worlds, some hugely complicated industries, some tiny and private contributions, to wander with me and consider the everyday anew."
Amy Einhorn/Putnam ($26.95).
That's a heady challenge. In lesser hands, it might spell disaster. Fortunately, Ms. Laskas -- director of the writing program at University of Pittsburgh, a former Washington Post columnist and widely published magazine writer -- marries a journalist's eye with a novelist's prose. As a result, rather than impressionistic sketches, Ms. Laskas has created a book full of master etchings.
Seven of the nine stories are adapted from their first appearances in national magazines (GQ and Smithsonian). It's not surprising that, with each covering a different industry, readers will find some more compelling than others. One of the best, "Underworld," follows the E shift some 500 feet below ground at the Hopedale Coal Mine in eastern Ohio. America has a love/hate relationship with coal: even with the rancor about pollution and alternative energy, we unquestionably need coal. Each of us uses about 20 pounds of it every day. That's a lot of coal -- and Ms. Laskas introduces men like Smitty, Billy, Duke and Sparky who bring this key ingredient of the American economy to the surface. Ms. Laskas covers it all: "No light, no standing, no bathroom, no water fountain, no phone, no radio, no windows, 500 feet down, a couple of miles in."
But more than that, "Hidden America" shows how these men are a sort of makeshift family.
Sure, there are some minor bobbles along the way (a superficial chapter about Bengals cheerleaders made me thankful that the Steelerettes have long disbanded), but "Hidden America" is the kind of book for which to be grateful. Ms. Laskas' enthusiasm for these "hidden" workers is contagious. I found myself rooting for Donnell at the R.A. Brown Ranch as he tried to save a prized bull. I cheered on Sputter, a female truck driver from Cleveland, as she navigated the interstate highway system. By the end, there was a renewed appreciation for the type of workers whom I rarely see, but whose efforts make my own life easier.
In this political season, the presidential campaigns are doing their best to appeal to those last swing voters. 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.
Instead, Ms. Laskas gives us stories of the victories and trials of working in today's America. Both presidential campaigns could learn a great deal by reading "Hidden America." In fact, we all could.
Cody Corliss, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is a Pittsburgh lawyer (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published September 9, 2012 4:00 AM