Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work

  • Jeanne Marie Laskas
  • Putnam
  • 336 pp.

In this collection of nine articles, the author set out to make us see the importance of those whose labor we take for granted.

Reviewed by Boris Weintraub

Most of us mindlessly live out the events of our everyday lives. We take blueberries from the refrigerator to put on our morning cereal without thinking about who picked them, how they were transported from farm to supermarket or who excavated the coal that powers the fridge. Stopping for gas on the way to work, we don’t ponder how oil is extracted from the ground to be refined into gasoline. At lunchtime, when we’re hunched over a burger at a fast-food joint, it doesn’t occur to us to consider who raises the cattle that gets turned into beef or what happens to the wrappings after we toss them into the trash. And if we fly out on business in late afternoon, check into a hotel and watch a football game on the hotel room TV, we don’t think about those who helped land the plane safely. By the way, who are those cheerleaders cavorting on the sidelines?

In Hidden America, Jeanne Marie Laskas sets out to reveal such workings behind the scenes by spending time with workers in an Appalachian coal mine and on an Alaskan oil rig; cowboys on a Texas ranch and migrant blueberry pickers in Maine; a long-haul trucker and the overstressed staffers in a LaGuardia Airport control tower. She also explores the lives of National Football League cheerleaders, the business of selling guns and the psychology of owning them, and the present and future of garbage as seen from the top of a gigantic southern California landfill.

Laskas, director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and a former columnist for The Washington Post magazine, contends that most of the workers she chronicles are both hidden from and invisible to the public that benefits from their labor. “Only when an air traffic controller fails does he get notice,” she writes in the introduction to this collection of nine articles, most of which originally appeared in different form in the magazine GQ. “Like so many characters in Hidden America, the better these people were at their jobs, the more invisible they became.” Her aim, she says, is to “pull the curtain back and show the action backstage, how it’s done and how much brain power and brawn and sacrifice goes into making the systems work.”

The people behind that curtain are a varied, often ornery, sometimes cantankerous, occasionally lovable lot. Laskas didn’t spend just a day or two with these people. With some she spent weeks and even months and really got to know them. There is Foot, her “baby-sitter” during her months in the coal mine, who has spent his entire adult life working below ground and worries that he has neglected his children. There is Sputter, a lovesick trucker who revels in country music and her two cats and seems unaware of how unusual she, a black woman, is in her line of work. And there is TooDogs, leader of a crew wrangling oil out of the Beaufort Sea off the Alaska North Slope, caring for his workers like a mother hen guarding her chicks, all the while laconically tending to the needs of his visitor from the Lower Forty-Eight.

While Laskas admirably pulls back the curtain to reveal these hidden lives, she is at times too much a player in her own tale, unable to see the world from the perspective of others. Finding herself 500 feet below ground and a couple of miles in from the mine’s entrance, her thoughts are in part on the mine’s aesthetics. “There is nothing aesthetic about a coal mine,” she muses, “no design, no geometry, no melody. A coal mine greets you with only one sentiment, then hammers it: This is not a place for people.”

Further, stuck in Alaska for two weeks with a crew on a manmade ice island in temperatures 45 degrees below zero, she wonders over and over how the workers can stand the cold and the isolation in a place where “there are no locals, no burger joints, no houses, no cities, no churches, no billboards advertising radio stations playing hit songs.” Finally a crewmember sets her straight. “You don’t get it,” he says. “We want to be here. We haven’t been sentenced here. We choose to be here. We are happy here.”

Even her piece on an Arizona gun shop presents that culture from her own perspective and that of her friends in the East who find guns appalling. Laskas is confused and ambivalent until she herself buys a rifle and a handgun and becomes psychologically seduced by their appeal. Besides, there is nothing “hidden” or “invisible” about this gun shop, its employees or its customers; they are simply alien to Laskas’ everyday life.

And then there are those cheerleaders, the Cincinnati Ben-Gals. Certainly there’s nothing hidden about them, until you explore their private lives. One has bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology and a master’s in public health. Another, whose mother was killed by her stepfather, works in construction. Others describe in excruciating detail how they fight to keep their weight down and learn to adjust their Victoria’s Secret push-up bras just so. “You do it, like, right in the V,” one says. “It makes it look like there’s a shadow, so it makes your chest look bigger.” Interesting, yes, but pretty slight, compared with the cowboys Laskas describes who squeeze semen out of a prize bull with the goal of helping ranchers produce the highest quality rib-eye steaks.

For the most part, though, Laskas succeeds not only in making us feel a part of lives we rarely see but also in convincing us that what her subjects do is vital to our way of life. Listen to an air-traffic controller explain the challenge of his job: “You gotta be able to dance. You gotta be able to inject imagination in a moment’s notice. You can’t say, ‘Oh, this isn’t working; what do I do now?’ …What if that guy loses an engine? You gotta know. You gotta have ideas. You gotta dance.”

Laskas makes us see her people dance.

Boris Weintraub was a senior writer with National Geographic and a reporter and editor for 21 years for the Washington Star and the Chicago Tribune. He has been a freelance writer since 2003.

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