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.
Life could be greener on the Emerald Isle these days, where Ireland's economic recession has wreaked havoc upon the residents of one small rural town. There are no jobs, no pension, no unemployment benefits. The effect is a domino-like collapse of livelihood and sanity for everyone in Irish writer Donal Ryan's insightful, darkly humorous debut, The Spinning Heart.
The title refers to a battered and flaking red metal heart on a front cottage gate belonging to the father of well-known resident, Bobby Mahon. Despite its beaten condition, the heart continues to spin on its hinge. It becomes a metaphor for Bobby and the other 20 blindsided souls, who each get a brief chapter to tell their story. They, too, need restoration after the town's big employer abandons them.
Pokey Burke is the corrupt, now-defunct builder who absconds with more than his workers' money. Soon everyone is pondering their hand-to-mouth existence and the fissures emerging in their community. The common thread is Bobby, Pokey's tough but well-respected former foreman whom everyone knows and generally respects. But even Bobby is not above reproach, as his possible complicity in his father’s death has people wondering.
Ryan’s snapshot into the recess of weary minds speaks to a wry, vulnerable sensitivity, and his writing in the vernacular hits home. The prose oozes with spot-on observations of the time, while his use of idioms smartly adds to the authenticity of the first-person narratives. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, Ryan isn't the first author to swirl Ireland’s economic woes into a novel. Tana French did it in Broken Harbor, and closer to home, Stewart O'Nan did it with Last Night at the Lobster. Best laid plans are never guaranteed. “The future is a cold mistress,” Bobby’s father said. Tomorrow is like that.
An inspiring coming-of-age story about the pursuit of a better life in the United States is the 2014 One Maryland One Book selection. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande describes her perilous journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood. Read the entire Between the Covers blog review here.
Upon learning of her selection, the Mexican-born author and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist said, “I'm humbled that my immigrant story was chosen to be the springboard for lively conversations on what the American Dream means today.” The Los Angeles Times called her book “the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.”
Now in its seventh year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people from diverse communities together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels, attracted thousands of readers to Maryland’s statewide book club. The 2014 theme is “the American Dream.”
Ishmael Beah writes as though he is guided by a kaleidoscope of imagery. The old man's hair was not gray; it was the "color of stagnant clouds." Such is the pleasure of reading this Sierra Leone-born author, who recently published his first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about the aftermath of civil war in his home country. The book, part fable/part allegory, is really several individuals’ stories set in the village of Imperi. It is about the redemptive nature of those who have suffered heartbreak few can imagine and the human need to renew, rebuild and rejuvenate.
Imperi is a devastated, desolate place since the war. Villagers are now making their way back, past the rows of human skulls that line their path. They bring with them memories. They bring physical scars as well, like those borne by Sila and his two children, whose hands were cut off by a 16-year-old boy soldier now living among them. They crave a return to the old ways, like Bockarie and Benjamin, two teachers at the center of the story who find it difficult to inspire students when conditions are so poor. Fortunately, there are storytellers, like the elder Mama Kadie, whose evening tales swaddle those listening in the tentative celebration of tomorrow. As more villagers return, we learn of their pasts. Insidious corruption from both within and outside of the government complicates matters.
Beah, a former child soldier who wrote about his experiences in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was influenced by the tradition of oral storytelling as a young boy. "I bring a lot of that oral tradition to my writing and I try to let it seep into the words." His evocative narrative, conveyed in the third person, borrows from his native Mende as well as other languages. It is lyrical prose that invites readers to slow down and drift into a world Beah knows all too well.
Historian Jill Lepore eloquently pieces together the sparse writings of a little-known 18th-century American woman who also happens to be the favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin. In her meticulously researched work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the Harvard University professor reveals a humble woman whose station does not dampen her upbeat and quick-witted spirit. The siblings emerge as two restless spirits, connected through their love of writing yet separated by their assumed roles of the time.
Born in 1712 in a two-story wooden house on Union Street in Boston, the youngest child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was expected to learn to read but not necessarily how to write. Her mother taught her, as did Benjamin, who was six years older. Married at 15, Jane Franklin Mecom's endless days of cleaning, washing and mothering were in contrast to her glamorous brother's life. She cherished letters from her brother. Their lifelong correspondence reveals a keen, opinionated woman who is a shrewd political observer and a lover of books. With 12 children, she came up with her own way of chronicling births and deaths by creating her own slim book called the "Book of Ages." The book became a remembrance and her story. It survives, while most of her letters to her brother do not.
Lepore, a National Book Award finalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, is passionate about her subject even when evidence is scarce. She explores the political, social and commercial sides of the times in compelling character-driven prose. And while she freely draws the parallel life of the siblings, it is the juxtaposition of men’s and women's roles in Colonial America that reminds readers of the extraordinary fortitude of women like Jane. With 148 pages of notes, source material, reproduced documents and time period detail and spellings, the narrative unfolds slowly. Readers of early American or women's history are rewarded with a fresh look at one of this country's most influential, iconic leaders and the sister in his reflection.
A dizzying amount of wealth permeates the stone fortifications in Anthony Russell’s entertaining new memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. What seems most important is what the wealth symbolizes and how it shapes the lives of those it cradles. Yes, the tweedy set flaunts its well-placed connections. There are pheasant-shoots, duck launches and tea-sipping beneath museum-bound tapestries. Not surprisingly, Russell admits there are also consequences to being reared in a "gilded bubble,” where everything material is handed to you. Russell aims to satisfy our curiosity.
For those not familiar with medieval fortresses, Leeds Castle is about as splendid as they come. Located in Kent, England, the former Norman stronghold with ties to six queens of England is among the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Its 900-year history is the stuff of fairy tales. Readers will appreciate the complement of black and white photographs.
The writer-musician Russell, who grew up in this milieu, was exposed to the stuff of kings at an early age thanks to his maternal grandmother and chatelaine, the bold, indomitable Lady Baillie. "Granny B" purchased Leeds Castle in 1926 for the American sum of $874,000. It is here that Russell spent his childhood in the 1950s, absorbing "the castle way." This included eccentric "ceremonies" like fussing over baby ducks and enduring family gatherings where no one paid him much mind. With such a privileged start, gearing up for adulthood beyond the castle gate would have its challenges.
Writing with wry humor, Russell alternates between being sardonic and wistful. He points out unapologetically some of the silliness while poignantly recalling the shear splendor of it all and gratitude for being a part of it. We get to know some of the uniquely British personalities (with names like Morg, Guysy-Wee and Mr. Elves) who help add the color that make this frank, behind-the-scenes look a delightful jaunt, just in time for the return of another extravagant household in Downton Abbey.
Paul Harding's second novel, Enon, brings back the Crosby progeny in this not-quite-a-sequel to his stunning 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Tinkers. In this latest effort, the grandson of Tinkers' dying protagonist reels over the sudden loss of his only child in the same tiny New England town. It is a story not so much about death as it is about the physical and emotional spiraling into grief's crevasse and the slow, tentative climb out.
Charlie narrates this story with a hand-wringing anguish. His 13-year-old daughter Kate has been struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle to the beach. It's an unimaginable bond lost, not just for Charlie but for his wife, too, who promptly leaves her depressed husband to return to her native Minnesota. Life is at its lowest point for Charlie as he descends into a morass of drugs and alcohol. For him, grieving demands a continual rewind of the past: his time with his daughter, his memories of his clock-enthusiast grandfather, the history of Enon. Soon healing begins to seem uncomfortably overdue.
Harding delivers metaphor-laden prose and rich detail that relentlessly probe Charlie's grief through his hallucinations that are, at once, dreamy and remarkably lucid. At one point Charlie tries to capture "the function of loss'" through a mathematical proof he writes on a wall. "My thoughts quickly became confused as I tried to demonstrate the calculus of grief." Another time he digs out his grandfather's fly fishing rod he intended to show Kate and begins casting off the old oak stump in his overgrown backyard until he crawls, exhausted and defeated, back into his house. With its disquieting tone, this short novel of 238 pages oozes like a scab that will not heal until finally, a choice must be rendered: to heal or not.
Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.
Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?
A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.
Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?
A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.
Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?
A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.
Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.
A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land. The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.
Literary fans of something old and something new now have an opportunity to see, in person, the art masterpieces at the heart of two respected writers' novels. Tracy Chevalier's hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt's eagerly anticipated new novel, The Goldfinch, feature paintings by Dutch masters now on temporary display in the United States. Johannes Vermeer's beloved "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and Carel Fabritius's exquisite "Goldfinch" are currently part of a 15-painting exhibition on loan to the Frick Collection in New York until January 19.
Girl with the Pearl Earring, Chevalier's second novel, is about Vermeer's 16-year-old housemaid who becomes the subject of his painting. It was greeted with popular and critical success following its publication in 1999. In addition to some 4 million copies sold, the book was turned into a movie.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's sweeping new novel, is part suspense thriller, part coming-of-age novel. It centers on a young man named Theo, whose life is changed forever following a bomb attack at a New York museum that leaves his mother dead and him in possession of a rare Fabritius painting.
Now at the final American venue of a global tour, the paintings are traveling for only the second time in 30 years as the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague undergoes an extensive two-year renovation. Here is your opportunity to get up close and personal with the paintings behind the stories. Visit the Frick Collection for more information.