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Janesville: An American Story (2017)

Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein. 2017.

See the lesson here.

The 2017 Business Book of the Year. It tells the story of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of a large GM car factory – until it closed in 2008. This is the story of what happened next. It’s a biography of a town told through the stories of its people.

Janesville embodies all that was great about the American Mid-West, which was once the powerhouse of the world economy (see Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon for a incredible history of the area's rise). It is a microcosm of the fortunes of the entire region. The area’s transformation from industrial juggernaut to post-industrial rust belt. The stories are incredibly sad, heartwarming and endearing. The characters resonate, they’re just everyday people, remarkable but also flawed, people with whom we can identify with all to easily. We all have friends like these. We are these people. The way they strive to provide for their families despite the hardships they face. The struggles, the dead ends, the lost causes and those that spiral out of control completely. We see global forces totally outside their control, or even understanding, rip through their society with devastating impact. Even those that somehow recover financially (and no one does fully financially recover) are left evidently scarred by the emotional trauma of those years. The relocations away from their family, the false hope of retraining for jobs that don’t exist. The people that do everything right but still can’t get a break.

Written mostly before Trump was elected it focusses on the broken promise of the Obama era, how GM Motors received government support and came back strongly from the dead – but how this remarkable renaissance completely bypassed this corner of the USA. It only mentions Trump once in the epilogue, but it is all too easy to understand the bitterness and hurt felt by the (mostly white) working and middle class families. All too easy to understand why they backed Obama’s rhetoric of American renewal. Even easier to understand their feelings of betrayal and their willingness to listen to a demagogue like Trump.

To understand modern America, you need to understand Janesville.

Teaching as I do mostly foreign children the view from outside is that America is still a land of wealth and opportunity. To see its people, react and vote, in a manner that suggests otherwise is deeply puzzling. Outside the country the US voter’s desperation for change looks merely like ignorance and hatred for everyone else. Outsiders need to understand that large parts of this once mighty nation have essentially been gutted thanks to globalisation and technological change.

This lesson hopes to address that need. With a strong focus on EAL needs and vocabulary it tries to tell the story of the negatives of globalisation. It is part of a wider mini-SOW on Globalisation I have made especially for EAL students. I’d highly recommend teaching this lesson in the context of the wider SOW so students get a real appreciation of the larger forces at work.

Hope it helps.

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