In 2016, Eliese Goldbach, a millennial with a degree in English, is working as a house painter. She visits an old friend in Washington, D.C. They hang out with a couple of lawyers, who make fun of her being from Cleveland. “What does Cleveland produce, anyway?” one says. Goldbach can’t say.
But a few months later, Goldbach realizes the answer when she is hired at Cleveland’s massive steel mill that spans both sides of the Cuyahoga River: Cleveland makes steel. Goldbach needs the job, and the mill pays a lot better than anything else around.
“Rust” is centered around Goldbach’s time at the steel plant. The mill has a nightmarish quality: “Steel is the only thing that shines in the belly of the mill. The walkways, which were once the color of jade, have dulled to a sickly, ashen green. The cranes, once yellow, have browned with grime. ... Many of the buildings, which are covered in rust and soot, have taken on the blackish-red color of congealed blood.”
Goldbach discovers a community within the plant. It’s not a polite community; it’s mostly male, and the women who work there are expected to be tough, though Goldbach doesn’t report overt sexual harassment. Ragging and teasing are common, and the expected response is a good comeback or the f-word. But the workers look out for each other and for the new hires, warning of dangers, helping each other with the routines, giving rides in golf-cart-like “buggies” over the extensive grounds. This culture of mutual help is centered on the union, which oversees the safety measures when management “forgets.”
Much of the interest of “Rust” is the work in the mill, which is gruesomely hard and dangerous. Accidents are common; deaths, while infrequent, can be terrifying. One of Goldbach’s early assignments involves raking impurities off molten zinc (used for galvanizing steel). She wears protective clothing that will keep her from catching on fire, but won’t keep the zinc from burning her if it splatters. Huge cranes carrying tons of steel pass by working areas — workers have to be wary of getting under them. Even cleaning jobs can be daunting — sweeping up never-ending fine carbon dust from massive buildings.
But if working in the mill wasn’t hard enough, Goldbach is also coping with bipolar disorder, triggered after being raped in college. That turns out to be worsened by the rotating shifts at the steel plant.
She’s also trying to figure out who she is and can be. As she puts it, she was raised to believe that she could be anything she wanted, but within the moral confines of a conservative Catholic family that saw Democrats as instruments of Satan (particularly on the abortion issue). In 2016, that means her father is a big Trump supporter. Goldbach is by now a liberal feminist — part of her evolution after the rape (which was, of course, not addressed by the college in any meaningful way).
One of the most moving scenes in the book comes when she is challenged by a male coworker about women’s reactions to sexual harassment. “Why don’t you just move on?” She tells him about being raped. In a surprising reversal, he admits he was sexually molested as a child, but thought he himself just had to move on.
Threads of mental illness, steelwork and politics as well as Goldbach’s relationship with a liberal schoolteacher weave into “Rust.” Sometimes they’re woven meaningfully; other times, not. The political insights are the weakest thread, though Goldbach tries to explain how Trump’s pseudo-populism resonated better with the steelworker culture than Clinton’s elite liberalism. She herself is stunned by Trump’s victory in Ohio; she looks around at the grocery store and wonders which of the people there voted for him. She has a hard time understanding how her Christian parents can support a man who jokes about sexual harassment. Trump’s victory also helps trigger a bipolar episode and the crisis point of her story.
Goldbach describes how the people she works with (apparently mostly white, though she never says) felt abandoned after the 2008 recession and by the gradual shift of well-paying jobs like steel work to other places; Trump promised to bring that prosperity back, and his pseudo-populism resonated well with the culture in the mill. Goldbach doesn’t mention Trump’s covert racist appeals, though those are usually also credited with swaying some people to vote for him, and it’s a weakness in her discussion that she doesn’t address that. Ironically, Goldbach gets new hope after the election when she attends the Washington, D.C., women’s march, riding in a union-sponsored bus to Washington, D.C. — an example of how the mill’s culture isn’t easily characterized as being on the right or the left.
While “Rust” has its weaknesses as a memoir, it reveals the complexity of life and politics in the declining industrial areas of the Midwest, as well as giving a credible story of a young woman’s journey in finding herself.
Read more in the July 29 - Aug. 4, 2020 issue.