Resounding Echoes of the Great Depression in 'Someplace Like America'

by Catherine Ramsdell

18 July 2011

Reading Dale Maharidge’s words and looking at Michael S. Williamson’s photographs will pierce your heart -- and head. This book will move and change you.
cover art

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression

Dale Maharidge

(University of California Press)
US: Jun 2011

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression isn’t always an easy book to read. After all, in 2011, no American wants to think about people in the United States living in tent cities or that the way “Latinos are being treated in Arizona echoes the situation of Jews in prewar Europe”. So I can’t say that I loved reading it—but I can say I’m glad I did.

Perhaps it would have been easier to read if I wasn’t finishing it when the US job numbers for June were released. Media sources may differ on where to place the blame, but they unanimously agreed that the numbers were “dismal”.

Perhaps it would have been easier if the images from a lecture I recently attended on photography of the Great Depression (the first one) weren’t so fresh in my mind. And if these images didn’t have remarkable parallels to those taken decades later and featured in Someplace Like America.

The evening (and morning and 24 hour) news spends a great deal of time on the American economy, but watching well dressed and perfectly groomed anchors talk about statistics, show political sound bites, and interview down on their luck families just isn’t the same as reading Dale Maharidge’s words or looking at Michael S. Williamson’s photographs. I’m not certain if I can exactly explain why, but there’s something so real about this book that sometimes it hurts. Maybe it’s because Maharidge gets angry or maybe it’s because Maharidge and Williamson get so close to their “subjects”, but whatever the reason, the reality is tangible and, at times, painful.

Divided into six parts, the book begins in the ‘80s and moves forward to the present. In between, Maharidge discusses hobos, tent cities, Hurricane Katrina, NAFTA, Bruce Springsteen, immigration, and mill closings. He also opens parts one through four with several sets of interesting statistics, including: number of people (in the US) employed by Wal-Mart, number of people employed by General Motors, and the salaries of average CEOs and average workers.

Consider—in 1979 “Wal-Mart employed 21,000 workers”, “General Motors employed 618,000”, and “the average CEO…was paid 35.2 times what an average worker was paid”. Flash forward to 2008 (and draw your own conclusions): “Wal-Mart employed 1.4 million”, “General Motors employed 92,053”, and “the average CEO…was paid 275.4 times what an average worker was paid…”

In the sections themselves, Maharidge details the people and places he and Williamson encounter as they journey cross country in trains (usually in boxcars) or in Das Boot “a $600 1973 Olds Delta 88…The car’s body was lime green and rusted. The rear floor had a hole rotted through—you could see the ground. The tires were bald.” They flipped a coin to see who would sleep in the front seat.

At the end of the introduction, Maharidge states: “People are doing things on their own to survive and even thrive. That’s the message of all the disparate characters you will read about.”  If anything connects these stories, it is the tenacity and spirit of the people in them.

One story, titled “Anger in Suburban New Jersey” talks about Lisa Martucci and her family who almost lost their home because of a year-long job layoff.  Lisa’s response: “‘There is no ACORN for middle-class people,’ Lisa said, referring to the group that advocated for the poor. ‘There’s no support for us.’” Even after Lisa’s husband found another good job, “the family…stopped doing a number of things: ‘Going to the movies. Going out to dinner. Buying new clothes…We haven’t used a credit card in three and a half years. It’s a trap. The whole system, for it to work, is predicated on you being in debt.’”

While the people and their situations vary, many stories follow this theme: hard-working, resilient individuals who are trying to make a better life for their families. And many of them succeed.

Another section, “Home Sweet Tent Home”, outlines the Alexander family’s life—a story that originally appeared in an earlier book: Journey to Nowhere. When Maharidge first met the Alexanders in the ‘80s, the Platts were living in tents at a KOA campground. In 2011, they were living in their own home. Refusing to go into debt, Jim Alexander built the home “with cash as [he] went”, and Maharidge tells them “You are a success story from our book”, and he thinks “It had been a long journey from that tent in Texas to this wall on which the Alexanders could attach a nameplate that signifies what a home is supposed to be—not an investment, not something to use like a cash machine, not something to be chopped up and ‘securitized’ on Wall Street.”

Many of the families and individuals in Someplace Like America are indeed, as Maharidge states, surviving. But hardly thriving.

Of course, not all are even surviving. Maharidge and Williamson have been following some of these families for 30 years, and not all the endings are happy (or even contented). The one Maharidge describes as “true bottom” is the story of Jay and the Texas work camp, a story Maharidge did not record in his earlier book. Maharidge describes Jay as “a man who had given up, utterly”. And considers the “work camp” a cult that “was exploiting [Jay’s] weakened state of mind in order to manipulate him. The work camp practiced classic sleep deprivation: it worked men hard and then roused them after just a few hours’ sleep to do it all over again…” Maharidge concludes “one must be defeated to be controlled”.

It’s a disturbing thought, and these stories are part of what makes the book, at times, difficult to read. Another disturbing issue is the notion that some might believe the surviving families are ruining the American economy. A common thread in most of the success stories Maharidge relates is that the families are committed to living within their means. If that means growing their own food, they do. If it means not buying new clothes, they don’t.  However, Maharidge notes:

As today’s economic devastation continues to unfold, I keep reading about how Wall Street is waiting for American consumer spending to kick in so that the market can soar and things can return to ‘normal.’ Any sign, no matter how feeble, sends stocks higher. The so-called experts don’t come out and openly say that we should go back to the time a few years ago when people earning Wal-Mart wages took out second mortgages and ran up $20,000 or more in credit card debt they could never repay. But that’s their real message.

So if spending isn’t the answer, what should we do? According to Maharidge: Don’t forget the past, take personal responsibility, care about our communities and form more of them, cut back on military spending, and remember these thoughts:

We don’t have to be a Tarp Nation. We overcame that kind of desperation and lack of caring for our fellow citizens in the ‘30s. We can do it again. No little girl in this country should have to grow up with the memory of huddling homeless and terrified in a tent as a tornado blows in. We will at long last relearn what is truly too big to fail—the lives and hopes of working men and women.

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression


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