For local writer Deborah Rudacille, writing her latest book was a personal odyssey. The daughter of a Bethlehem steelworker knows the heart and soul of the Dundalk community she called home for many years. It's fitting that Rudacille will kick off the North Point Branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs,” the new adult speaker series that takes place this summer. Rudacille will discuss her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town that chronicles the rise and fall of the Sparrows Point steel mill and the neighborhoods in its wake. The program, which includes a book talk and signing, will be held Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. Rudacille recently answered questions for Between the Covers about the genesis for her story and her personal connection to Dundalk.
Between the Covers: Your book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, conveys a powerful message about what happens when the American dream fails right in our own backyards. What drove you to tell this story of the former Bethlehem Steel plant and the local community it shaped?
Deborah Rudacille: I grew up in Eastfield, and my family, like many of our neighbors, owed their homes and their livelihoods to Bethlehem Steel. When my parents bought their house on Harold Road my dad worked in the tandem mill at Sparrows Point and my mother worked as a secretary for United Steelworkers Local 2610. Most of the men in my family worked at Sparrows Point. So the rise and fall of the American steel industry wasn’t just theory for me — it’s the story of my own family and community.
BTC: You present an objective look at an industry in decline. Did the fact that the story was so close to home make it difficult to write at times?
DR: Yes. The reporting was easy and fun because I got to hang out with people who were much like the folks I had known growing up and to listen to their stories. But the writing was more challenging because I had to figure out a way to weave together their stories with those of workers who had very different experiences in a way that didn’t skirt the less savory aspects of the narrative — the systemic racism at the Point, for one — and situate them in the broader history of the American steel industry.
BTC: You use personal narrative along with workers’ interviews. Can you talk a little bit about how you conducted your research for this project? Were people open to talking about their experiences?
DR: Absolutely! Sparrows Point was more than just a job for most of these folks so they loved reminiscing about their experiences there. I started with family members and then worked outward, attending monthly retiree meetings at the union hall and luncheons at various senior centers and churches around town. I like to say that you can’t throw a stone in Baltimore without hitting someone with a Sparrows Point connection, which made it very easy to find folks to tell their stories — not just workers themselves but also family members, and of course people who had been raised in the company town. I also did quite a bit of archival research at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, Baltimore County Historical Library, Museum of Industry and other archives.
BTC: There are so many threads running through your book — the danger of the mill work itself, the labor unions, racial tensions, safety and environmental issues, the “company town” concept to name a few. How did you go about framing your narrative?
DR: Well, as I said, that was the greatest challenge in writing the book. There were all these disparate threads and themes, and I knew that I had to include all of them to provide an honest and objective look at life on the Point. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story chronologically but focus each chapter on a different issue using the voices of my sources to carry the narrative forward. Once I settled on that structure, the writing of the book became much easier.
BTC: Roots of Steel, published in 2010, was your third book. Your previous books were science-focused. Can you tell us what is next for you as a writer? What else are you doing professionally?
DR: I’ve been working as professor of the practice at UMBC for the past couple of years, teaching journalism and science writing. I’ve also done some preliminary reporting for my next project, a kind of Catholic “Roots of Steel” which tells the story of the post-Vatican II church from the perspective of lay Catholics. I’ll be talking with people who have left the church as well as people who remain about their feelings on the sex abuse scandal, the status and role of women in the church and the struggle of LGBT Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics to remain part of an institution that (officially at least) does not consider them worthy to receive the sacraments. As with Roots of Steel, it will tell a big story through the lens of individual experience.