Disclosure: I grew up in the city of Gloversville in upstate New York where Richard Russo–-six years my junior–-was born and raised and which plays a major role in this family memoir.
A number of my Gloversville friends who read Elsewhere expressed disappointment and even anger over Richard Russo’s treatment of the city of their youth in his family memoir. Reflecting on the Prologue, which is a shorter version of a piece published by Granta, the British literary magazine in 2010, they feel Russo focused on the negative side of the glove industry and ignored the benefits which accrued to the community, such as inexpensive housing, better than decent schools, public parks and recreation, a high number of doctors per capita, et al––benefits some of which remain long after the glove industry’s near total demise.
While I’m in agreement that the glove industry balance sheet needs to consider the contributions it made to Gloversville as well as the negatives, I stand with Russo in stating that the cost was extremely high for those whose livelihood put them in harm’s way. Working in the glove industry––especially in the tanneries was extremely dangerous due to the use of toxic chemicals, but in addition to the healthcare issues, the exploitation of women who worked piece rate wages from their homes and the denigration of the skills of a generation of cutters who came over from Europe as described in Russo’s Granta article as well as in Herbert M. Engel’s study Shtetl in the Adirondacks (1991), the industry owners backed by the holders of political power in Fulton County used red-baiting and other vicious tactics to break the leather workers’ union locking them out of the shops in the winter of 1949-1950 and thereby reducing even further their economic straits. The cost of supporting one’s family by working in the glove industry increased dramatically after World War II, just as the industry was declining in the face of overseas competition.
That said, however, the focus of Elsewhere is truly not on Gloversville. It’s a book about Russo’s relationship with his mother, who while she had a love-hate relationship with Gloversville, would have had the same feelings if she lived in Amsterdam, Troy, Elmira or any of the other cities in the heartland of America’s 19th century industrial revolution, cities which by the mid-twentieth century were in rapid decline, their industrial bases gone resulting in the disappearance of opportunities for non-college educated workers.
In her later years, Mrs. Russo often harked back to her job with the General Electric Company in Schenectady––to which she commuted from Gloversville. She often stated she wished she’d hadn’t left that job because of the status it imparted and the way that company treated their employees. To some extent she was deluding herself because employment at General Electric began to decline in the late 1960s as that company evolved away from production of turbines and other large industrial machinery to more technology driven fields such as medical research which means even had she stayed in Gloversville and not gone to Arizona with her son when he started college in 1967, she might have been let go as so many others were when GE closed buildings and offices in Schenectady.
Elsewhere is not an easy read, as it is a story that does not have a happy ending. Certainly for people in the mental health field, it must be agonizingly difficult to read about the trauma inflicted by the deteriorating mental health of this woman on her son and his family. Truth be told, it is likely that many families could share similar stories as recognition and treatment of the condition Mrs. Russo suffered was rare in those days and the kind of help she received––mainly medications that deadened her senses––only temporarily hid symptoms rather than addressed the underlying cause. Only when Russo learned that one of his daughters was afflicted with similar behavior did he learn that obsessive-compulsive disorder is a treatable condition.
One of the characteristics of Richard Russo’s novels that makes them so popular is the humane treatment of his characters. There are few if any truly evil people in his stories––nor are there paragons of perfection. Compassion doesn’t mean Russo ignores the seedier sides of life; it just means he shows us the heroic can exist in the midst of decline. In Elsewhere, he doesn’t blame Gloversville for his mother’s condition; it merely served as a convenient excuse when she lived there as a place that didn’t allow her to have the kind of life she desired.
For Gloversville, the battle continues. Heroic efforts have been put forth by some, resulting in good things in face of great obstacles. When you drive down Main Street in 2013 you will see a thriving food coop, for example, which offers healthy foods at reasonable prices. You’ll also see empty buildings and you may notice people who seem to have walked off the pages of Russo’s novels.
Let’s hope this city continues to inspire Russo to help us understand our neighbors and ourselves while its residents continue the good fight to restore the kind of community where each person has a chance to make the life they desire.