Bookworm: 'Hidden America' unveils dark truths

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It gets dark earlier now, which means you turn on the lights earlier.

Chances are, turning on the lights is so automatic, you can find the switch without even thinking about it.

But think about this: who makes sure you have lights in the first place? The energy company? Think again, then read the new book Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

In a mine shaft 500 feet beneath Ohio, Laskas had two epiphanies.

First, “Dude, this is ridiculous.” Then: her daily life was dependent on people like those miners. Without them – and their work in a $27 billion industry – there would be no electricity. Why didn’t she know that?

Humiliated, she decided to go in search of the people who make sure we have food, that it gets to the supermarket near our home, and that our scraps disappear when we’re done. These are people, she says, “who, were they to walk off the job tomorrow, would bring life as we know it to a halt.”

Coal, for instance, gives America half its electricity and is the “fastest-growing energy source on the planet.” But getting it isn’t for the faint of heart: miners often spend half their lives in darkness, sometimes in a constant crouching position. Yes, they make good money, but the shifting, groaning planet makes the paycheck dearer.

“Most of the people who pick our food have brown skin,” Laskas learned at a migrant camp in Maine. Once upon a time, locals did the work, but not any more.

In New Jersey, Laskas spent time in a frantic air traffic control room, where she found a lack of technology and a feud between government and unions. She followed cowboys in Texas and learned that ranching has gone high-tech and that “designer” bulls make our meals tastier. She went cross-country with a black, female tractor-trailer driver, and took a ride in a Bomag over mounds of trash in California.

Oh, how I loved this book. I loved it because Laskas sees things differently. I loved it because she got dirty while she was learning about the people she chose to follow, and because she seemed to care deeply about them. I loved it because it taught me something important while it made me laugh.

I think that if you have ever used electricity, drunk from a plastic bottle, eaten, dressed, flown, shopped or watched the NFL, this book needs to be at the top of your to-read pile.

In its own way, Hidden America sheds a lot of light.


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