Book Review: Someplace Like America

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge, photographs by Michael Williamson, with a foreword by Bruce Springsteen (University of California Press, 2011).

I am nervous at the keyboard. Can I do good by this epic with my amateur review? Or might I degrade it with a lesser form of writing? Alas, all I do know is that I cannot keep this book to myself. Dale Maharidge’s deeply sympathetic storytelling, interspersed with Michael Williamson’s penetrating photographs, is a gift to readers. But the getting to this product was neither beautiful nor profound – it started when the young reporters hopped a train in 1980 to ride the country with hobos.

From there they embarked on a 30-year journey documenting the lives of working class and poor Americans. They encountered danger on the rails, suicidal depression in the unemployed, tent-living among the homeless, and rusting remnants of de-industrialization (people and places). At times they came upon the most desperate of circumstances, including one man literally selling the clothes off his back to get another meal. At other times they put themselves into the story, placing themselves among the homeless to be scooped up by an agency that indentures them as laborers without wages. They introduced us to someone in dire straits and necessarily parted ways, sadly leaving us uncertain about how – or whether – that gentleman survived. It is an emotional experience to be taken through Maharidge’s stories; that he himself is plainly empathetic makes the narratives both better and more disturbing.

The most touching stories are those of families he followed over several years. The reader’s familiarity with the family members grows into an investment in their fate. And thankfully, it is with them that hope resides. One of the most moving passages is of a brother and sister expressing pride and even fond memories of their life in a tent decades before; their father, ashamed of that past, was consoled by their affection after all the years of hardship.

Bruce Springsteen was so inspired by the people in Maharidge’s stories that he wrote several songs about them, including “Youngstown.”

Maharidge and Williamson published several books over those thirty years, and Someplace Like America is a reflection and compilation of the many narratives they captured with their pen and camera.