This powerful—even disturbing—book examines the state of Louisiana, a home of the Tea Party, multiple polluting industries (oil, chemicals), environmental degradation, bad health for all, including children, and politics and economics that favor corporations not local business. 

In Part One, “The Great Paradox,” sociologist Hochschild interviews locals, attends civic events, sits in cafes, and listens to stories. Bit by bit she understands that right-leaning people believe in Republican notions of less governmental regulation despite suffering from the ill effects of living in “red” states, even individual counties, that are the most polluted in the U.S. (pp. 79-80).  She calls this disparity “the great paradox.” Locals call a portion of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans “Cancer Alley” (p. 62), but there is no popular demand for control of pollution.

Part Two, “The Social Terrain” discusses history. Earlier, Louisiana had economies of fishing and farming in tune with the landscape. New industries, including Big Oil changed all that, with promises of jobs and wealth for all—neither of which occurred, because oil is largely mechanized, and wealth went to corporations, some headquartered in other countries. Further, there was not just pollution but also large sinkholes and the BP Horizon blow-out of 2010. Problems of on-going pollution were ignored by the Press, especially Fox news, and the “Pulpit” (evangelistic Christianity) took the longer view, urging continued human exploitation of nature, patience for ultimate rewards, and the hope that “the rapture” would ultimately save the most worthy Christians.

Part Three is “The Deep Story and the People in it.” Hochschild formulates an unspoken but motivating narrative of values in Louisiana. This metaphoric story represents deep feelings, including urges for a success that is always thwarted. In the story, there is a long line of white, Christian people, mostly male, often with limited education, waiting in line patiently to climb a hill. On the other side is a good job, wealth, security, and reward for the long waiting. Tragically, there are “line cutters,” symbolized by President Obama and other blacks who had various preferments, but also women, also immigrants, also refugees, even the brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird that needs clean water and fish to survive. The people in line feel betrayed. Where is progress toward the American Dream? Fair play? There is hatred toward the line cutters, and loyalty toward the similar people in line and the industries that will save them. Pollution is unfortunate but a necessary cost.

“Going National” is the fourth part. Hochschild reviews the plantations of the South that not only brutalized slaves but also caused poor whites to move to non-productive land, while the wealthy always improved their lot. People from the North were (and are) suspect, with policies of integration, abortion, gun control, etc. The North cut in line. People in Louisiana became “strangers in their own land” and therefore glad to support not only Governor Bobby Jindal (who “left the state in shambles,” p. 232) but also Trump who would “make American great again.” The “strangers” have gone national in the U.S. and even in some other countries. Hochschild drafts two short “letters,” one to the liberal left and the other to the Louisiana people. She suggests that the two polarized groups have more in common than they currently imagine.  


This is a very sad book to read. The information and analysis portray a tragedy for Louisiana in its land, air, and waters, in the health and welfare of its people, in the state’s government and economy, as well as a pervasive confluence of powerful forces that will not soon go away and, more likely, become even worse.  A skilled writer, Hochschild puts us in the cars and cafes of her informants. It’s clear that she—an outsider from the University of California, Berkeley—treats them with respect and can engage them in probing and personal conversation. We get to know these people and gain understanding for why they—and millions like them in many other states—voted for Donald Trump. 

Hochschild has an eye for telling details, the color of flares at a nearby plant (p. 70), the bulletin board materials in a church (p. 120), even “teeth…visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist” on the job (p. 190).  Besides the engaging descriptions and narratives, there is careful background research woven throughout.     

While Louisiana is an extreme example in the U.S., many other states (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alaska, Texas, Mississippi) are similar in depending on oil and coal or other polluting industries and have, one way or another, similar “sacrifice zones.” Hochschild writes that since the 2016 election the Tea Party and allied people are “Strangers No Longer,” the title of Chapter 15. Given Hochschild’s analysis, we may wonder whether the U.S. as a whole is a progressively unhealthy even ungovernable place?


Finalist, National Book Award 2016

Appendix A

“The Research", describes how Hochschild arranged and conducted her interviews over five years, producing some 4,000 pages of transcribed material.

Appendix B
“Politics and Pollution: National Discoveries from ToxMap” describes statistical analysis that confirms relationships of ignoring pollution and therefore living in a polluted place, both nationally and especially in Louisiana.

Appendix C
“Fact-Checking Common Impressions” quotes 12 common claims followed by a researched fact.  The first is “The government spends a lot of money on welfare.”  The fact is “Eight per cent” of the 2014 U.S. budget.

Endnotes, Bibliography, and Index total 88 pages. 


The New Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count