Book Review: Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do (2010) by Gabriel Thompson.
Gabriel Thompson and I share something in common.
He and I both are inspired by immersion journalism. He writes: "As a teenager, I relished George Orwell's accounts of going into dangerous coal mines in The Road to Wigan Pier and washing dishes in Down and Out in Paris and London, and was likewise moved by Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. I've always been drawn to chronicles of immersion journalism; they have a unique ability to explore fascinating and sometimes brutal worlds that are usually kept out of sight." (p. xiv.)
Too, I've read and reviewed several books of immersion journalism: e.g. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose (reviewed 6/7/09); Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent (reviewed 6/23/09); and Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard (reviewed 10/29/08).
The difference is Thompson actually did it.
In Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, Thompson worked over a period of about a year total "cutting lettuce" in Yuma, Arizona, toiling in a poultry factory in Russellville, Alabama, and delivering flowers and food in Manhattan (his hometown). And then he wrote about it.
Effectively done, immersion journalism discovers "worlds that are usually kept out of sight" by the readers as well as the immersed journalist. This book is no exception.
While he's previously written about "the lives of immigrants" (and planned to do so again here [xiv]), he had "been blindsided by the degree of rural poverty suffered by U.S. citizens" (158), whom he worked alongside during this year. This discovery explains in part the apparent change to the book's subtitle, which had to add the bracketed "[most]" to acknowledge that some Americans will, and have, done this kind of work. Through this immersion, Thompson ably pulls the curtain back on the abuses suffered by those who happen to work with their hands. Thompson exposes how labor laws--especially in the New York setting--are simply ignored, with the concomitant understanding that those abused have no (or highly limited) power or ability to complain.
Thompson made some other interesting discoveries.
For example, "Unlike an office setting--where personalities frequently clash over an email or a comment taken the wrong way--there doesn't seem to be much conflict in the fields. For one thing, we're not maneuvering for advancement: Our roles and wage of $8.37 an hour will remain the same. Equally important, we lack the extra energy need to gossip or hold grudges for long; our exhaustion ensures that there's simply no time to develop the dysfunction that plagues many work environments." (35.)
To his credit, Thompson concedes that his politics motivated this project. "Politics animates me; politics is a factor that motivated my current project." (74.) Even without this concession, Thompson's politics becomes clear as he intersperses the narrative with excursions into studies and arguments concerning employment, poverty and immigration.
Even with its strong political stance, the book's compelling underlying narrative and Thompson's likability fight alienating readers who may disagree with his politics.