Book Review: Working in the Shadows

Working in the Shadows: Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do by Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books, 2009).

In this feat of ‘immersion journalism’ writer Gabriel Thompson (check out his site) puts himself through back-breaking labor to relate the lives of workers across the country. For two months at a time he works as a lettuce farmer in Arizona, a poultry processor in rural Alabama, and a delivery boy in New York City. Disparate though those three stints may seem, they have much in common: they are physically exhausting and often dangerous jobs largely performed by migrant workers for little pay. The fruits of this labor are regularly consumed by the general population with little thought about the labor entailed. One of Thompson’s more powerful observations is that even with all the steps in the process between the cutting of a head of lettuce and our purchase of it at the grocery store, it is likely that the last hand that touched it before our own was that of the lettuce cutter.

Thompson’s detailed accounts of the work itself are vivid and often painful. But he also illustrates the larger context in each situation, here providing some of the most interesting insights for the reader. For example, one learns about the migrant workers who commute to and from Mexico everyday into Arizona, a dynamic that seems to satisfy employers, immigration officials, and the workers themselves and which transcends the polarizing debates over illegal immigration. In another instance, the reader learns about disparities in the restaurant industry, such as the minimum and actual wages of delivery men and the way tips are distributed (or not) to the hardest workers in the back of the kitchen. Thompson also shows us a white American community that paid immigrant workers little attention until the day they became politicized.

This is a quick and enjoyable read – Thompson’s writing style is accessible and flows easily from humor to rage, keeping it interesting throughout.