To say that Beth Macy's new book, Factory Man, is about the impact of globalization on rural communities in the American South might be a little like saying the television series "Mad Men" is about advertising or "The Sopranos" is about the mafia. It may be true, but it doesn't come close to capturing the essence of the thing. And capturing the essence is what Macy is all about.
So, let's try for a better description of "Factory Man," the one Macy herself uses: It's about a battle, by a third-generation furniture manufacturer, John Bassett III, to save his factories and jobs threatened by imports from China and "to file the largest antidumping case ever brought against the People's Republic of China, all of it orchestrated from a mountain hamlet better known for barbecue and bluegrass than international trade."
Like some of the best nonfiction writers today – Michael Lewis and Katherine Boo come to mind first – Macy takes a topic that is either too dry, too complicated, or too depressing for most journalists to tackle and she tackles it with vigor, integrity, soul, and skill. And like those writers, she employs research, details, archives, and interviews to set out a narrative that takes us into the furniture-making rural counties of Virginia starting in the 19th century with settlers and shacks along the Smith River and ending with smokestacks and factories, lawsuits and international exports.
At the front of the fight, and the narrative, is the somewhat deposed Bassett Furniture heir John Bassett III, or "JBIII" as he's known by Macy and the furniture industry and probably most of the state of Virginia. Born into Southern wealth and into a furniture empire founded by his grandfather, Bassett overcomes a family feud and an exile to the boondocks, or Galax, Va., where he manages to build a rival furniture empire out of a struggling side business. But then the 1980s, NAFTA, and free trade come along, and JBIII faces a bigger challenge in the form not of competitive family members but rather in the form of a piece of wood furniture in the style of Louis Philippe, imported from China with a sale price for less than it would take any American factory to make the thing.
JBIII is a complicated underdog. He's rich, rude, and either compassionate or paternalistic, nationalist or patriotic, depending on your point of view. But he has plenty of color, courage, and passion, repeatedly exhorting the nation to "get off its a**" and using the word "bird-dog" as a verb. In this one paragraph, Macy nails her complicated subject: "John Bassett had a knack for finding exactly the right person for the right job and getting them to do exactly what he wanted – through equal parts charm, brute coercion, and a mutual brand of loyalty that is perhaps only possible at a closely-held, family-operated business run by a patrician CEO, who happens to have a soft spot not only for the workers who made his family rich but also comes across as fearless and, as more than one competitor put it, 'a total a**hole!'"
In fact, Macy has a couple of things in common with JBIII. She also grew up in a factory town, on the other side of the class divide, where, she writes, her mother worked the graveyard shift at the Grimes airplane lighting factory in Urbana, Ohio. "My mom's handiwork was literally stellar," writes Macy. "You could see it up there, right near the stars."
So, Macy is convinced that JBIII really cares about the workers in his Vaughan-Bassett Company factories. They're the ones JBIII is fighting for, at least partly. And they're the ones Macy is rooting, and writing, for.
One of the more powerful aspects of Macy's storytelling is her willingness to take a classic American story and tell it from the point of view of the women, the African-Americans, and the working-class people that populate the narrative. There's Dolly Finney, a house maid who wore two girdles to prevent an assault from the men of the house and who bought a chemistry set for a niece who became the first family member to graduate from college. There's Mary Hunter, another African-American maid who saved enough money to leave a donation for a black school.
There's the chain-smoking, 90-pound Linda McMillan, spotted by JBIII in the five-and-dime taking apart a popcorn machine, who went on to become a chief engineer for Vaughan-Bassett Company, helping them take apart the Chinese Louis Philippes so that Vaughan-Bassett could eventually out-copy the imitators. Like Robyn Burnett and her Hemingses of Monticello, Macy takes a little piece of an American Dream in the corner of rural Virginia and relentlessly tracks down the forgotten workers whose grit and skill helped build that Dream.
Not content to describe the world as flat like Thomas Friedman's and determined to get at the nuanced, complicated, and real stories behind globalization, Macy treks Asia, trolls through archives, and gets to know the people inhabiting the corners of the furniture-making world in Virginia.
One of the last tasks Macy sets for herself is to find Mary Hunter's grave, hidden among weeds and kudzu. It reads simply, "In memory of Mary Hunter/A faithful servant of/ Mr. & Mrs. J.D. Bassett Sr." Macy adds to this and many other past and future epitaphs, writing, "This was American history, forgotten in these Blue Ridge foothills."
Janet Saidi is Monitor contributor. You can follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.