In Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit (from Flatiron Books), Eliese Colette Goldbach reflects on her childhood as the second daughter in a Polish Catholic family and her three years as a steelworker. As a little girl in Cleveland, she often saw the rust-colored buildings of the city’s steel plant in the distance when she rode through town with her father. Goldbach never imagined she would one day identify as Utility Worker number 6691, or that Trump would become President:
“I wasn’t supposed to be a steelworker,” she writes. “I wasn’t supposed to spend my nights looking up at the bright lights on the blast furnace… I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. I ran track. I played Beth in a school rendition of Little Women, and I was valedictorian of my graduating class.” Goldbach’s conservative childhood was mine. Even if wasn’t yours, it provides a lesson as to why large parts of the United States vote Republican and suggests how we might work to narrow a widening chasm of philosophical differences.
Other critics have compared Goldbach’s Rust to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Tara Westover’s Educated. It also shares similarities with Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire because it’s an insider’s story.
Although her book is in certain ways related to all three, Goldbach’s voice and story are uniquely hers. Rust tells a story that is singularly personal and experiential. It reminds us that only those on the inside can criticize, empathize, distill, and postulate about what life’s really like in Cleveland: a city nicknamed “The Mistake on the Lake.”
Goldbach completed her MFA but never received her diploma when she failed to fill out a form. This small act is symbolic of a series of fragmented failures. She’s crippled by student debt, endures a dysfunctional relationship, and spends her days painting houses. Buried in her malaise is a traumatic event that her college swept under the rug and minimized.
When painting a former college classmate’s house, Goldbach learns her friend is working at the mill.
She tells him she’s not cut out to be a steelworker but then he shows her his paycheck. We learn that “hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people vie for a few open spots.” Like Goldbach, “they want the American dream, or what’s left of it.” Even though the “air still stank of rotten eggs,” she explains that “sulfur was the smell of shifting fortune.” When she takes the reader inside the mill, she’s not just providing access to the inner-workings of a blue-collar worker’s life—she is reflecting back on what brought her there in the first place.
Rust’s author has a gift for writing visually arresting scenes. Reading that the dust settles on everything—on walls and fingers, on forklifts and lunches—we imagine the air she breathes and fear for what must be taking residence in her lungs. We weather the six month trial period where orange hats must prove themselves worthy of becoming a yellow hat and, thus, enjoying a life of security as a union worker.
Goldbach outlines the stakes when an old-timer tells her about another utility worker’s ghastly accident: “Imagine it, the old-timer said to me. The weight of that steel. It just split her in half.” Tension rides high in the mill where a steel coil can crush a worker at any moment, or a single drop of water can explode a vat of iron.
How do you reconcile making money from an industrial complex with the risk workers are forced to endure? How do you criticize what saves you? The answer is—you don’t. Goldbach chooses to look below the surface, to tell stories for those who can’t, and in so doing, shares one of life’s greatest lessons—there is meaning in being a small part of something big.
Goldbach’s education becomes her salvation and political awakening. We witness her challenging her parents’ and millworkers’ politics at the dinner table in conversations that have become commonplace at dinner tables all across the country. But at a time when the nation is divided geographically, politically, and demographically, Rust feels like a salve.
Goldbach could have easily dipped into a diatribe about sexist, patriarchal, Trumpian back-slappers. Instead, she looks through an empathetic lens to provide insight into how and why most of her co-workers and family believe Trump is their salvation. She notes: “We were Republicans because God wanted us to be Republicans. Satan had corrupted the Democrats by tricking them into the sins of abortion, homosexuality, and, worst of all, feminism.”
Rust isn’t just a book about blue-collar workers or quaffed aspirations. It’s a personal narrative about what it’s like to keep a flame alive. The vivid orange flame shooting above the Cleveland steel mill comes to represent the inferiorities of the workers as much as those of the surrounding inhabitants—the collective histories, tenacity, and resilience of everyone: “In a Rust Belt town, that flame isn’t just a harbinger of weird smells and pollution… The flame is very much a part of our history and our identity. It’s a steady reminder that some things can stand the test of time, even in a world where nothing is built to last.”
This memoir addresses a variety of issues that make challenging lives even more complex: sexual assault, restrictive religion, conservative politics, life as a steel mill worker, and mental illness. I can see how some might suggest that there are too many themes in this memoir. But, who are we to expect simplicity from this book, which at its heart, is an honest account of an individual’s community and her life, its redemptive narrative of hope and resilience?
What struck me as the most poignant lesson in Rust is that when the stakes were life or death, liberals and conservatives forged a unified front—as solid as the steel they produced. Notably, Goldbach never gives up hope or is denied her dream in the end. If she can bridge the divide of politics to love the people she came from while rejecting their ideals, isn’t there hope for us all?
If you enjoyed this review of “Rust,” check out other great content focused on nonfiction.