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Roots of Steel
by Deborah Rudacille
Pantheon (2010)
Roots of Steel
Believe it or not, people used to make things in Baltimore: airplanes, cars, even brooms. The most iconic factory in town was Bethlehem Steel's complex at Sparrow's Point, tucked in a peninsula just southeast of the city line. Deborah Rudacille's criminally overlooked Roots of Steel is the story of Sparrow's Point, from its Nineteenth Century origins to its revolving-door ownership in the Twenty-First. To Rudacille, a Dundalk native from a line of Sparrow's Point employees, this history is personal. The author honestly wants to understand why Sparrow's Point employed, then laid off, thousands of Baltimore men and women, and how Dundalk has survived the plant's changing fortunes. "To be born working class once meant a lifetime of economic struggle and uncertainty, with little opportunity to earn a living wage, to send your children to college, to retire with dignity," she writes. "For a time - all too brief, it now seems - that changed." Drawing on her family members, old neighbors, acquaintances, and a trove of archived oral histories, Rudacille explains how that sense of uncertainty changed. In doing so, she crafts a narrative people's history at its finest.

Roots of Steel capably explains the factory's early history but truly shines describing the fine details of steel work. Most job duties were intense; laborers dug holes in the ground while others toiled in the flaming furnaces. "You'd be in fire, literally," recalls one former employee. Side effects of the intense work environment included chronic sleeping disorders and detachment from family life. Some workers turned to alcohol or drug abuse to cope with the stress. Despite the grueling conditions, the jobs came with valuable benefits. Local shops offered substantial credit to Bethlehem employees. Steelworkers often earned enough money to finance their own, and their children's, college tuition. Some of the few still employed at Sparrow's Point enjoy high wages; others are content to be employed at all.

Roots of Steel illustrates, but fails to resolve, the contradictions at the heart of the post-war industrial working class. Rudacille describes a culture that prizes hard work but is sometimes plagued by laziness. This might be dismissed as mere irony, but Rudacille lingers on the topic, arguing that shirking helped cause Bethlehem's declining fortunes. (In fact, the book provides compelling evidence that managerial blunders were far more costly.) Roots of Steel is somewhat more successful showing the paradox of black-white relations in Dundalk. Black and white families enjoyed somewhat cordial relations while whites enjoyed preferential treatment at Sparrow's Point. Rudacille vividly describes certain bigoted white workers as well as racist schemes (especially the "seniority" promotion system) but avoids using the word "racism" directly. This reluctance might be the downside of her narrative history form; as a member of the extended community who has cultivated her sources throughout her life, she may have avoided sweeping indictments.

Growing up in Maryland, I often heard about Dundalk, the exotic backwater that was the butt of jokes. Rudacille is quick to point out the neighborhood's insularity and class resentment, an understandable reaction to the prejudice and derision I learned. "People in Dundalk smarted under the 'white trash' label," the author writes. Since then, the area is less remote; an old high-school friend worked in Dundalk, a close relative of mine lives there now, and I studied Sparrow's Point history in college. But secondhand stories, back issues of the News-American, and the informative but dense books by Judith Stein and Mark Reutter are poor substitutes for the firsthand accounts offered in Roots of Steel. The stories are so personal and intense that you can almost feel the furnace flames.
Posted by: CJ

Print Reviews (October 4th, 2011)


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