Review: A Limited Concept and Beautiful Prose Make for Mixed Reading in Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook, by Sonya Huber

In her new book Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook Sonya Huber offers a collection of effective essays mostly about her Midwest identity. A longtime essayist and Fairfield University professor, Huber shows off a technical mastery commensurate with her experience. There’s no doubt she can craft a prized paragraph, and readers familiar with her work will again appreciate the guidance of a steady pro. But this competent addition to her oeuvre is not a perfect book. It’s a good book, no doubt, but unfortunately a fatal flaw rots from its binding.

The problem is how often Huber returns to the same topic: a deep love for the Rust Belt, and how that love shaped her attitudes growing up. She holds this perspective in spite of, or maybe especially because of, the region’s grimier traits, like rural blight and harsh living. The essayist’s loudest muse is a “geographical compass,” which she has “tuned to the heartbreak love of weathered, rusted industry: the palimpsest of layered paint on brick, the corrugated metal of a boxy warehouse, the gravel and grit of asphalt, the gray smokestacks and pipes of concrete viaducts.”

About 14 of the 20 essays investigate how a derelict native land in some way morphed her identity and preferences. The partners she desires in the essay “My Men” have Midwest working class qualities, “They can sand and prime a beater car, spray on coat after coat of candy-red until the metal looks good enough to bite.” In “Flying The Flannel,” Huber rhapsodizes about the material’s relationship to her background, “I liked the thinness of mine, like I like other fake things I was born into, things I shouldn’t like but do, things that remind me of the Midwest: Hamburger Helper . . . food extruded, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.”

Author Sonya Huber

But for all this hometown pep, readers get very little insight into why Huber feels this strongly, why the Midwest looms so large over her self-image. For most of the book she luxuriates in a sort of unreflective hometown pride that frankly comes off as incomplete. “I still can’t figure out what I love about the blank amnesia of this place,” she writes, “which is no worse than any other place in the country where ‘fun is spelled with two Ns now,’ or so the radio tells me.”

It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce Huber identifies with her home for the reason most people do. Because it’s home. It’s where she’s from, and she appreciates its corny, sad, or dangerous characteristics as parts of a grander nostalgic whole. Her cheery perspective might be a little more complex, but not by much.

It’s a nice sentiment, though, loving home, and certainly one with which people are familiar. But perhaps that feature (its familiarity) exposes the greatest weakness of the book. Looking back fondly on where one grew up, even if one grew up in less-than-perfect conditions, just doesn’t a unique perspective make. And gushing about hometown pride is not worth all the real estate Huber gives it.

Readers will not find in Love and Industry outside-the-box points of view. There are no hot takes—not really. Instead Huber provides hundreds of beautiful ways to say “Home is good.” Which isn’t a terrible sin, after all. Nowhere is there a law written that commands essay topics be unique or controversial. Arguably, the topics are just an excuse to write something. So long as the writing is good, we critics shouldn’t complain. And the writing is good. Her material may feel a bit repetitive, but time and again Huber shows her gifts at description and eye for detail.

In a standout essay, “Chicagoland,” Huber practically writes a prose poem about Chicago and its surrounding towns, “Chicagoland is Chicago’s garage. We are the long, low, rusted warehouses where Chicago parks its snowplows and stores its extra couches. When Chicago takes off its coat, we hold it. We park its car.” In the essay “Goat-Baby,” Huber wonders how she can maintain her writing while she’s pregnant, “If I leave my body for lines of text, who reminds the baby’s cells to divide, and who keeps it from getting lonely?”

The book is full of poignant gems like these, bits and bobs of observation and pathos. Huber just suffers from a limited scope that reigns in her imagination. The book is only 185 pages and yet it seems like it could have been a bit shorter. Ultimately I like Huber’s style and would consider reading future work with more to say. I want to see what Huber does with a wider breadth of thought.

Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook is available at bookstores and through the Belt Publishing website.

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Adam Kaz