Lori Soderlind is suffering from a midlife crisis.
At the age of 49, she is taking a long hard look at her life and relationships, accomplishments and failures.
What to do?
Soderlind decides to handle this crisis by taking a sabbatical from the college where she is a professor. She hitches an old Scamp trailer to the back of her car and, packing up her menopausal fears and her love of American history, along with her dog, Colby, she hits the road. But this is no ordinary road trip, as you will see when reading Soderlind's "The Change: My Great American Postindustrial Midlife Crisis Tour."
The country, too, Soderlind writes, is going through something like a midlife crisis. Soderlind is on a quest for our American industrial heritage. She goes looking for those solitary, desolate towns that are dying or dead along the American Rust Belt.
During the boom period of the waterways, the railroads, big oil and steel, towns bloomed and blossomed with thriving communities that now, an entire generation later, are nearly abandoned.
Soderlind and Colby invite the reader to join them on their road trip to this nearly forgotten element of America. Soderlind's style of humor is engaging and infectious as she gives us an inside look at empty factories, deserted warehouses, long-abandoned grain silos, all the detritus of concrete, crumbling brick, steel skeletons and boarded up storefronts.
Her book can be described as an American tragicomedy. There is something sad about these places that pull at her heartstrings, and the reader's, too. Soderlind describes the small deserted towns she explores as "towns stuck in grief, where something that was missing was not coming back."
These were once American working towns. Woolen mills, steel mills, oil refineries, railroad yards and huge grain silos, to name a few. They were a major factor in the grand American story, our common working-class heritage.
That is, until the economic decline, when resources were played out, and those steel and oil, and railroad magnates who had made themselves wealthy beyond imagining, pulled out and left these towns high and dry, and even later, when manufacturers sold out to companies in other states or countries.
Interestingly, Soderlind ruminates about her own life as she drives down the road, discovering parallels between her own personal experiences and that of the towns she explores. She finds the long sought after connections between these places and the American history that accompanied their rise and their untimely downfall.
From New Jersey to Missouri, through the corridor of the Erie Canal, over the Allegheny Mountains, down into the Monongahela river valley, the steel town of Pittsburgh, the oil town of Titusville, through the breweries of Milwaukee, a stop in West Virginia to learn the tragic story of the "coal wars," and a tour of the closed mills of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Soderlind and Colby stop along the way and introduce the reader to the people who still survive in these long-forgotten towns which had made a name for themselves back in their heyday.
Now, Soderlind notes, they are simply towns where the young leave and the old remain.
Together, Soderlind and Colby find there is a heart still beating resiliently in these obsolescent towns along America's Rust Belt.
Kimberly Bolton is a circulation clerk with the Missouri River Regional Library.