Inside “Hidden America”

Jacket.aspxThe cover flap of Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas begins with this teaser:

Five hundred feet underground, Jeanne Marie Laskas asked a coal miner named Smitty, “Do you think it’s weird that people know so little about you?” He replied, “I don’t think people know too much about the way the whole damn country works.”

One of the newest additions to the growing “behind-the-scenes at work” genre, Hidden America is a series of essays that provide a peek into the quirks and demands of several jobs that are unfamiliar to the average American.  Delve in to learn more about:

  • coal miners
  • migrant workers and life in a labor camp
  • Ben-Gals cheerleaders
  • air traffic controllers
  • sporting goods stores and the culture of gun ownership
  • ranching
  • oil rigs
  • long distance truckers
  • landfills

Laskas spent weeks in each setting, learning the work and meeting the people whose job it is to do the labor every day.  More than anything, the essays are character studies; sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always engaging.  While I was at times left wishing for more information about the technical aspects of the work described, as written, the book is very accessible and full of intriguing details.  Local readers may be surprised to learned that despite all of the time they put into practice and promotional events, the only compensation the Ben-Gals cheerleaders receive is $75.00 per game.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, many will be startled to read that a migrant laborer picking blueberries in Maine can earn as much as $1,350.00 per week, though this is far from typical for most crops.  Imagining days spent in a mine with ceilings that don’t exceed five feet, or on an oil rig off the frigid shores of Alaska’s North Slope, will leave you amazed that there are people who actually enjoy working in these environments.  Would you believe that many of the people employed at Puente Hills Landfill in California cite being close to nature as one of their favorite things about working there?  To sample a bit of her writing style and see pictures that compliment her essays, visit Laskas’ website.

DISCLAIMER: Nervous flyers may want to skip the chapter on air traffic controllers.  It’s fascinating and you’ll be impressed when you meet the controllers, but you’ll never again be able to board a plane blissfully unaware of all of the high level logistics required to keep planes from crashing into each other!


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