Roots of Steel
Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town
As the American economy seeks to restructure itself, Roots of Steel is a powerful, candid, and eye-opening reminder of the people who have been left behind.
When Deborah Rudacille was a child in the working-class town of Dundalk, Maryland, a worker at the local Sparrows Point steel mill made more than enough to comfortably support a family. But the decline of American manufacturing in the decades since has put tens of thousands out of work and left the people of Dundalk pondering the broken promise of the American dream. In Roots of Steel, Rudacille combines personal narrative, interviews with workers, and extensive research to capture the character and history of this once-prosperous community.
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In Dundalk, Independence Day is a sacred celebration—its holy feast beer and hard-shell crabs, and its central ritual the biggest parade in the state. Stars-and-stripes bunting or a ﬂag drapes from every house, and families set out their lawn chairs the night before to secure a spot...
“Rudacille tells the history of the steel industry from its epicenter. . . . Her book is about much more than American labor; it’s about the elusive American Dream, once achieved and now deferred.”
“With a rare combination of personal empathy and clear-eyed reportage, Deborah Rudacille has gone to the heart of Dundalk, Maryland and emerged with a careful, cohesive case-study of the American dream abandoned. For a relatively brief period, the United States reached its apogee on the world stage by validating its workers and their basic aspirations. In tough and unforgiving places like Baltimore’s Bethlehem Sparrows Point complex, the world’s most vibrant middle-class—indeed, a consumer class beyond any prior reckoning—was forged to fuel the economy of a great power. But now, only rust. Roots of Steel is nothing less than a chronicle of a great society unmoored, and Rudacille, at the heart of this reflection, aptly quotes the prescience of union stalwart John L. Lewis: ‘The future of labor is the future of America.’ God help us.”
—David Simon, creator of The Wire
“A masterful document of the mill’s history and politics, and what it means for us now. . . . A rather unique combination of personal narrative and memories, and dozens of interviews with millworkers and their families mixed with the cold, hard facts of the steel industry’s boom and bust. . . . You read about the stories of the Sparrows Point workers—so much forgotten outside of Dundalk union halls—and you can’t help but think of how much they match the stories of soldiers in wartime, themselves often forgotten outside of VFW halls and working-class living rooms.”
—Baltimore City Paper
“Deborah Rudacille’s latest book is a well-informed, engagingly written elegy to Baltimore steel as it’s gone to rust—by an excellent writer with every reason to take this story personally.”
—Madison Smartt Bell, author of Devil’s Dream and All Souls’ Rising
“Capturing workers’ experiences with a company emblematic of American steel’s decline, Rudacille work is a poignant contribution to American labor history.”
“At once a history of one of the nation’s mightiest manufacturing plants and an homage to the people whose efforts made it thrive.”
—Style Magazine (Baltimore)
“[An] affecting portrait of a decaying loop on the Rust Belt . . . Rudacille has delivered a book that would do Studs Terkel proud, partaking of his oral-historical approach to the past at turns, imbued with his pro-labor spirit throughout. Required reading for activists and for those wondering where things went wrong for America’s working people.”
“Deborah Rudacille’s dirty and beautiful history of Baltimore steel is also a history of America. The steel manufactured in these Baltimore plants helped to build American icons like the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Roots of Steel is full of stories of hard work and pollution, war and unions, the American dream and bankruptcy.”
—Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody