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Janesville: An American Story

Janesville: An American Story was voted one of the 100 notable books of 2017 by the New York Times Book Review. Written by Washington Post staff writer of three decades Amy Goldstein, Janesville tells a tale so American it may as well have been about fast food or infant mortality. The NYT blurb puts Janesville in “a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class” to which this writer very much agrees. For me, this book carries special meaning. Janesville is the biggest city and the county seat of Rock County in southern Wisconsin, my hometown. We moved to an apartment in Rock County, Beloit to be exact, in 2013. In 2014, we moved to the bigger apartment of the duplex, the downstairs. In 2015, I moved to Grant County in the southwestern portion of the state by myself for work, but visited home every weekend. In 2016, we moved to Jefferson County, the county directly north of Rock, but spent more than a majority of our leisure time at home, in Rock County. In 2017, when it came time to buy a house, we knew where it was going to be and we’ve been in that house in Beloit, WI, a 10 minute drive from Janesville, the preferred destination for the commodities that a smaller Beloit might not have, since then. The book was published exactly five weeks after we closed on our home.

My immediate reaction upon finishing the book is one of annoyance with myself for not discovering it sooner. Janesville is the definitive tale of a ten year period in Rock County. It’s a failure on the publisher, Simon and Schuster, that whatever marketing efforts they put into this book didn’t reach me, a well-read and omnipresent online resident of Rock County. It’s a failure on my part for not buying the book immediately when I was informed of its existence months ago. I’ve since received as a gift for my birthday from my brother, who made the original recommendation.

The tale heroizes the hard working unskilled laborers that are my neighbors and follows specifically a handful of families devastated by the sudden-but-also-kinda-expected GM layoffs that halted the local economy in 2008. The storytelling is so accurate and so homegrown that to criticize it is to criticize Janesville. It asks but doesn’t answer many philosophical questions on behalf of the American worker. Five generations of families saw their lives run through UAW Local 95, so much so that it felt like a birthright. When that birthright was taken away, one Janesville became two. Are the Whiteakers, the Wopats, the Beyers, and the other line workers who lost their way of life the protagonists, the good guys who were robbed of everything with little warning and less assistance? Or are they simply creatures of habit, scared or incapable of change and adaptation, created by a complacency of a city and a people who refused to see the writing on the wall despite the giant font and the bold print? That’s a decision for the reader to mull. Former Congressman and 2012 Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan never visited the Rock County Job Center, despite numerous invitations, including a personal one delivered face to face by the director. I’ve seen clients in that building, every Wednesday during the heating season, low-income clients applying for energy assistance from the local non-profit I worked for. The schedule was always full, and sometimes double-booked. I've also worked in another building oft-mentioned in Janesville, BMO Harris Bank in downtown Janesville, on Main Street, as a personal banker from 2016-2018. The once central hub for M&I Bank is reduced to a massive empty building of quiet echoes and minuscule transactions. Next door is the low income Garden Court Apartments. The residents more often than not have their fixed income managed by Rock County Advocacy Services. They're given a week's worth of big blue checks every Monday, each individually dated, so they can bring them to the bank to cash them daily. They range from around $1.20 to $5, each client given a daily allowance so as not to lose a month's worth of cash in one day. The "blue-checkers" as these low-income clients are affectionately and often annoyingly referred to as by BMO Harris employees, often lack the basic assistance they need to simply survive. I can recall a particular client, an older man who was blind, who would often bring his mail in for myself or the other personal bankers to sift through, find the important stuff, and read it to him. These are the transactions happening in the lobby of the bank Mary Willmer worked so hard for in the name of Janesville's economy. I also worked in the also oft-mentioned former Parker Pen building, again for the non-profit, helping low income clients receive heating assistance. The office, on the fourth floor, still has the original carpet, a long orange shag disaster. The office is right next to the studio of the local radio station, 105.9 the Hog, but the whole building is a ghost town of its former self. I'd go entire days seeing one or two employees of other business in the massive building. There's a vacant cafe with a "for rent" sign on the main floor, the old cafe has been closed for over a year. I have a dream of renting it and operating a breakfast and lunch diner, and using it to serve the homeless on holidays. But that's exactly where it will stay: a dream. This cafe can't be profitable in this Janesville, because this Janesville isn't what it used to be. This is the Janesville that Paul Ryan elected not to see when in 2016, despite fewer jobs and similar wages since before the factory closing, he announced that Janesville’s comeback was nearly complete. Does that make Paul Ryan the bad guy of the story, the antagonist local politician whose hometown roots force him to believe that even though his neighbors don’t vote for him, he knows what’s best? That question is much easier for the reader to answer.

Janesville invests in characters and instantly immortalizes a decade of failure and hope in Janesville. The characters are so detailed and the investment so real, the story reads like a novel, like these characters were imagined by Goldstein, only alive through the words on the paper and the imaginations in my head. But this isn't a novel and these characters aren't made up. These are my neighbors. I felt Kristi Beyer’s pain as she took her own life. I rekindled a rage reading about Diane Hendricks and Scott Walker’s crusade to become a “right-to-work” state. I cheered for Kayzia and Alyssa Whiteaker as I read about them graduating at the top of their class, and having done the same I felt Jared Whiteaker’s exhaustion as he drove across the midwest every weekend to come home and visit his family. An emotional read, Janesville flies by in an instant. As a Rock County resident, I applaud, endorse, and approve Janesville: An American Story.