Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland
By Edward McClelland
A few weeks ago, the Indianapolis Star wondered why Mike Pence had seemed so quiet and detached during his first session as governor. The governor's staff offered a quick reply: Pence had actually spent half his time outside the Statehouse, touring counties, sitting on business roundtables, and working, as he likes to put it, "on making job creation job one."
That's certainly a worthy cause, given that Indiana's unemployment rate hovers above 8 percent. Not that our previous governor, who was no one's idea of quiet, didn't struggle for eight years to improve that number and the state's stagnant per capita income.
In his new book, Nothin' But Blue Skies, Edward McClelland digs deep into the history of this problem - or, at least, into one part of it. McClelland, a Midwestern native, traces the decline of manufacturing in Decatur, Ill. (where everyone used to clock in at a corn syrup refinery), in Syracuse, N.Y. (an air conditioner factory), and in our own Gary (the steel mills), among other cities. And while Nothin' But Blue Skies isn't perfect, it still tells a worthwhile story, relevant to local concerns - especially when manufacturing remains so important to the Hoosier economy.
Michigan's auto industry plays a key role in this story, and McClelland writes engagingly about his old high school in Lansing, which sat next to a parts factory for GM. The factory's jobs weren't easy - to many, they weren't even desirable - but for decades you could graduate from high school, then walk across the street into a good-paying job. (Sometimes you could even skip the graduating.)
That factory was torn down in 2005, and the absence of it and many others helps explain why Michigan's per capita income has fallen from 11th, in the early 1960s, to 37th today. "The twentieth-century auto plant," McClelland writes, "was a great integrator, a great income leveler."
Nothin' But Blue Skies does a good job at showing how these plants shaped and organized their communities. In Lansing, a different bar would open outside each one of the factory's gates. On Chicago's east side, the housewives checked the wind patterns before they did laundry; if it was blowing across the sooty factories, they would hang their clothes inside.
Today, Buffalo has so many abandoned factories - and those factories are so overgrown with wildflowers and weeds - that the city suffers from the highest pollen count in the country. McClelland includes a few present-tense moments like this, along with some fun before-they-were-famous profiles of Dennis Kucinich and Michael Moore. The writing here (and in the memoir sections) is McClelland's best - like when he describes the factory next to his school as painted a "shade of green somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and mold."
But McClelland spends far more pages detailing these cities' histories, and, after a while, it starts to feel repetitive. He also skimps on history's hows and whys. When he does address them, it's simply to indulge some predictable pro-union politics.
That's really too bad since Nothin' But Blue Skies is a book that could prove of interest to both Gov. Pence and his Democratic opponents. While Indiana was never as auto-dependent as Michigan, it still had plenty of plants - you could plot them out by mapping the high school basketball dynasties scattered throughout the North Central Conference. In 2013, only a handful of factories remain, and even they're considerably smaller, just like the RV plants in Elkhart and the many other types of industry besides.
Nothin' But Blue Skies provides a timely reminder of how much Indiana's industrial economy has changed - and how, because of those changes, something like our unemployment rate has become much more than a governor-sized issue.