Rust by Eliese Colette Goldbach

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this book, part memoir and part social commentary, references the colloquial name ‘Rust Belt’ which was given to the north-eastern states in America where a major decline in the steel industry occurred from the 1980s.  The Rust Belt was so-called because of the consequent economic and social decline of the region.

Into this milieu comes the protagonist of this novel Eliese Goldbach and, as she describes it in the opening paragraph:

Dust settles on everything – on walls and fingers, on forklifts and lunches, on train cars and coat jackets.  Even the workers, who lumber through their long shifts, seem to be collecting dust. [1]

In high school, Eliese believed that she would escape from Cleveland and the dominating steel mills with their rust coloured buildings and orange flames.  She wanted to travel, attend college in ‘a legitimate city’, and build her life elsewhere.  She was a successful student and one who had been frequently told that ‘the possibilities are endless’. 

However, the Great Recession changed her life trajectory and, with decreasing employment prospects, Eliese undertook post-graduate studies with a goal to enter academia.  At the same time, she was suffering from a major bout of depression – caused in part by her pre-existing bi-polar disorder and in part by the impact of a traumatic incident not revealed until later in the book.

Consequently, unable to complete the necessary paperwork to receive her degree, Eliese sought employment at a steel mill and became Utility Worker #6691.

It is from this point that the book begins to explore its three major plotlines – the story of Eliese’s experiences as an employee of the mill; the trajectory and causes [and finally the qualified resolution] of her mental illness; and a social and political commentary on the emerging presidential election with its ex-reality star candidate Donald Trump.

These plotlines – while very different in nature – are seamlessly blended as Eliese’s values and attitudes gradually are reshaped by her experiences in the mill.  Raised in a republican and catholic household, Eliese’s contact with steelworkers and participating in their conversations gradually shift her thinking towards a more liberal perspective and one which is reinforced by the views of her liberal-democrat boyfriend.

Now a committed Democrat, Eliese is disbelieving of the momentum gained by Trump in his progress to the White House.  Insightfully, she summarises the belief systems which underpin the motivation of his supporters.  In the following extract, she is speaking specifically about her father but the sub-text is that she is speaking about Trump’s supporters generally:

My father had lost so much, and he was afraid of losing more.  His angry far-right politics masked the vulnerabilities that pervaded his life.  The immigrants were at our borders, and the Muslims were at our doorsteps, and Hillary Clinton had a choke-hold on democracy.  When Trump told everyone that the next disaster was already upon us, my father was too afraid to ignore the message. [134]

But there is also the day-to-day work of the mill.  As a ‘newbie’, Eliese is introduced to a number of memorable characters – some of whom have worked at the mill for decades.  These co-workers bring alive the descriptions of the mill:  Sleepy Bear who falls asleep anywhere and anytime, Gunner who is keen and enthusiastic about safety, Amelia who frightens Eliese until the day they share a traumatic event.  Each character is skilfully drawn by the author with affection and understanding. 

Woven in and around the day-to-day events is the history of the steel mills and the continuing threat that they will be shut down.  If a reader is particularly interested in this history, then this is a very good place to start.  But for other readers – perhaps less so inclined – the history never intrudes but instead adds a depth of understanding to the life of the steel workers and their struggles socially, financially and politically.

But behind every thought and action is Eliese’s fear that her mental illness will subsume her.  It is a black shadow which is barely kept at bay but when it takes control – as it does more than once in her story – she is dragged down into a cycle of mania and depression.  At the heart of it is a sexual assault which she endured when at college.  Her attempts at justice and holding the perpetrators to account failed due to the college’s refusal to address the assault appropriately.  It is the assault which brings her back to her hometown Cleveland and to work at the steel mill.

Thus, the three plotlines merge and the reader is taken – with Eliese – on a journey towards her salvation.  Written in an intensely personal way, the story of Eliese engages the reader from the beginning.  The references to the history of the mills, the political life of the steelworkers and Donald Trump’s triumphant march to the White House never intrude on the narrative but instead add depth and a sense of completion to it.

Rust is a very good book and well worth the reading.  The author demonstrates great promise for her future writing.

Eliese Goldbach is a steelworker at the Cleveland Temper Mill.  She has received a Master’s degree in Fine Arts; and her writings have appeared the Alaska Quarterly Review and other publications.  Eliese recently received a grant from the Ohioana Library Association which is given to young writers of promise.

Rust

[2020]

by Eliese Colette Goldbach

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 52940 280 3

$32.99; 367pp

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