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In Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein uses ethnographic interviews to provide first-hand accounts of the impact of the closure of the General Motors (GM) plant on the people of Janesville, Wisconsin. This is an intricate ethnography full of rich details that not only show the devastating consequences of the US economic recession for the auto industry in midwestern US towns, but also reveal the personal experiences and costs of the resulting economic and social turbulence, writes Emma Posca.  

If you are interested in this book review, you may like to listen to this LSE public event podcast in which Amy Goldstein discusses her book, recorded at LSE on 2 October 2018. 

Janesville: An American Story. Amy Goldstein. Simon and Schuster. 2017.

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Janesville was on the map in America because of General Motors (4)

Amy Goldstein opens her book with the above quote to set the scene of the midwestern Wisconsin town of Janesville, showing how the General Motors (GM) plant had been at the core of the economic and social lives of its citizens since 1923. In 2008-2009, Janesville was one of the ill-fated communities that faced job losses from which it could not bounce back. The town was not alone in dealing with a recession, yet it suffered a great deal economically: ‘many townspeople suffered through an economic earthquake that created 8.8 million dollars’ worth of job losses as well as personal and social turmoil’ (4).

The people of Janesville were not prepared for the closure of the plant, thus they struggled to readjust economically, personally and socially. Many businesses closed; homes were lost; families were split up; and the town was unable to reinvent itself. In Janesville: An American Story, Goldstein uses ethnographic interviews to provide first-hand accounts of the impact of the closure of the GM plant on the people of Janesville. Goldstein’s study allows the reader to see how the closure brought uncertain futures for residents and businesses, and provides rich and introspective details from each of the interviewees about their economic and personal lives.

The book is organised as a chronology of the story of the town. It begins with the year 2008 when the closure of the GM plant was announced, and proceeds forward through the subsequent six years, ending in 2013. Through Goldstein’s ethnographic interviews with the residents of Janesville (families, business owners and ordinary citizens), the reader also gets a sense of the impact of the GM plant over 100 years. The author goes back and forth between past and present stories from 1923 and 2008 to show how the GM plant had been at the centre of everyone’s lives. Families like the Wopats and the Whiteakers had parents and grandparents that had worked at GM since its inception and were able to provide a solid foundation for their families through this labour.

Image Credit: (Cliff CC BY 2.0)

Throughout the chapters in this book, Goldstein does a good job of inserting information about American politics and uses statistics so that the reader can gain a perspective on the US economy, the townspeople and the demise of Janesville. This is reinforced in Chapters 13 and 23 when the author unpacks the perspective presented by former President Barack Obama and the monetary incentives that were supposed to be provided to Wisconsin towns: ‘President Obama, barely two months after he was sworn into office, gave a big speech about fighting for the 400,000 Americans who had lost jobs in the past year in the hemorrhaging auto industry’ (121). Unfortunately, these incentives did not work out for Janesville: a fact which is solidified in both chapters when the bankruptcy rates, job losses, business and home foreclosures and further economic crises are described. The following quote stands out in Chapter 23 when Ed Montgomery, a White House representative, heard the stories of laid-off workers who cannot find a job: ‘He listens to state legislators and union officers and economic development specialists who explain about the county’s soaring foreclosures and bankruptcy filings and public assistance cases, and its plummeting building permits because almost no one is building a home’ (124).

The appendices used by the author further allow the reader to see the impact of the economic recession. When looking at the information on page 312, the reader can view the decreasing annual incomes of individuals per household as well as job losses and retention over the life span of GM in Janesville. Through these, the reader can virtually see the parts of the puzzle come together. The citizens of Janesville saw their incomes soar through the mid-1990s and into the year 2000s before the recession caused the demise of GM (312-18).

Goldstein also inserts personal and in-depth narratives of the interviewees as a way to convey the raw emotion behind the economic and psychological stress that was created by the closure of the GM plant. Each chapter strategically includes personal and individualised experiences to visualise the life trajectories of various citizens, indicating that Goldstein had full access to, and developed a close bond with, residents. These include respondents such as Mike Vaughan, who went back to school to train for a new career, and Mike Wopat, who worked out of town to support his family. This intimacy with interviewees’ experiences is made evident when she provides the following information on page 171 from Vaughan:

Yes, he will be making less money than before.  But that is part, he believes, of accepting that the old times are gone. Part of not dwelling on what you can’t change. Part of being grateful for what you have.  In these new times, what Mike sees when he looks over the sweep of his life is, not the loss of his union office, but a gamble on human resources management that has paid off. He has a job. It is in his field. It is in Janesville (171).

The final chapter of the book offers Goldstein’s summary of the lack of assistance provided by the US government when the GM plant closed. There was no financial aid, training or bridging programmes offered to any citizen of the town. Due to this, the residents of Janesville found themselves at a loss with regards to their personal and financial security: ‘Families required all forms of assistance, but did not get any and became part of a broad tumbling downhill’ (263).

Janesville can be positioned as an intricate ethnography about the impact that the US economic recession had on the auto industry in midwestern American towns, providing in-depth and personal details about the people of Janesville that were affected by the recession and the closure of the GM plant. This book puts in perspective the idea that the economic recession was not just about money but also about people. By using ethnography as a methodology, Goldstein conveys to the reader that people are at the core of an economy and a country: with every car that was built in America and in Janesville, there is a little part of a person and a family that is included.

Despite the closure of the plant in Janesville, the reader is able to determine that the citizens of the town faced both good and bad times by being a part of the GM family through the details provided by Goldstein. This book can also be positioned as a tale of the promise that middle America brings prosperity. For the people of Janesville this promise was real for over 100 years, but it eventually came to an end. Yet, the lesson that is ultimately conveyed to the reader by the citizens of Janesville is that of survival despite economic uncertainty. This is made apparent to the reader when the author states the following about one of those caught up in Janesville’s economic turmoil:

To her surprise, Barb believes that Lear’s closing [a seat manufacturer in Janesville which supplied to the GM plant] was the best thing that could have happened. Its closing taught her that she is a survivor. It taught her that work exists that is worth doing, not for the wages, but because you feel good doing it.’

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Emma Posca – York University, Toronto
Emma Posca is a PhD candidate in the School of Gender, Feminist and Sexuality Studies at York University, Toronto. Her dissertation topic is rooted in sociological/psychological theories, feminist theory and social work frameworks. Drawing upon theories, methods and concepts such as Indigenous feminism, allyship, intersectionality, critical race theory and ethnography, her research revolves around gender- and race-based violence against Indigenous and Black women in Canada.

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