Library Journal

Boomer Memoirs | Social Science Reviews, May 1, 2016

Freelance journalist Hertneky’s Rust Belt Boy grapples with events of his generation with an examination of his Steel Belt hometown, Ambridge, PA, a Pittsburgh suburb, after the steel turned to rust and the “Burgh Diaspora” occurred. Taught in school to look—optimistically—to the future, instead of back at the area’s history and cultural vibrancy, Hertneky reports in a series of thoughtful essays on the traditions of ethnicity, religion, and family that have shaped the community named after the American Bridge Company. Despite the reluctance of longtime residents and aging relatives to tell stories about the old days, Hertneky concludes that the town’s formative narratives are carried within him and others, serving as a force in the region’s rebirth.

Rust Belt Boy Publisher’s Weekly Review

Paul Hertneky. Bauhan, $21.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-87233-222-5

Essayist Hertneky focuses his first book on his childhood in the steel town of Ambridge, Pa., “with its ethnic enclaves and round-the-clock factories.” He combines his memories with sections on the history of the town to produce a memoir that is both a coming-of-age story and a social history of the growth, death, and rebirth of a rust belt community. He talks lovingly about the strong role Catholicism played in his family during the 1960s, where he “felt embraced at the heart of this world where children were seen as divine gifts.” He also provides a fascinating look at how the town itself was founded in the spirit of communal millennialism embodied by the Harmony Society, a group with origins in Germany that existed in Pennsylvania from 1805 to 1905. He is honest, insightful, and empathetic about the rough life of many of the people who worked in nearby Aliquippa’s steel works, which “gobbled up mile and mile of shoreline.” Most successfully, Hertneky depicts his own trajectory from the town to college and beyond in parallel with the history of Ambridge’s “grand schemes and redemptive dreams.” (May) 


“You Can Go Home Again”, Keene Sentinel Review

 Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2016 8:00 am | Updated: 12:45 pm, Mon May 2, 2016.

By Bill Starr Contributing Writer


Stories of an American Childhood

by Paul Hertneky.

Bauhan Publishing, 222 pages, $21.95 (trade paperback)

Author Paul Hertneky’s new memoir is a graceful accounting of a young life rich in its preservation of memory and its recall of loss. It is evidence that while you can go home again, no matter Thomas Wolfe’s words many years ago, you may well find the twist of the past and the present escorting you on an unexpected journey of discovery, a journey of often bittersweet delights.

Hertneky, who now lives in Hancock, is hardly a native New Englander. He grew up in the heart of America’s rust belt: Ambridge, only a few miles from Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. It was a town and a region built on steel mills, the racing pulse of the nation’s industrial might for decades. Until it wasn’t any more starting in the ’70s and ’80s, and the mills shut down and the cities died and the people left.

The book is about some of them, yes, but that isn’t really what this memoir is about. No, its heart is centered on the people who stayed, how they got there and why they chose not to leave. The view is an affectionate, perceptive one, but it is clear there were some wounds in the processing, too.

Hertneky’s book relates his stories and those of Ambridge past and present in a series of brief chapters that range from a historical narrative to personal memories of family, food, friends, girls and jobs. And if some of these moments evoke universal strains of familiarity, they also have a freshness, reminding us of a unique immigrant experience and growing up in the midst of it.

Working in a steel mill left indelible imprints. Listen to this passage: “Our lives were filled with discarded molten material — ash used for traction in the snow, nuggets of pig iron, sharp metal sheets, iron filings we gathered with magnets, mercury we kept as a treasured plaything, pipes welded together for the batting cage and plates walling our steel dugouts, corrugated sheets we learned to cut and bend into sleds and shields. Aluminum, steel, tin, and iron: scraps of it and lengths of it were lying around everywhere.”

It is a most muscular memory.

The author was young then. And it took some doing to shake him out of his “monumental self-importance.” The Franciscan teachers helped. So did food: In a chapter cleverly titled “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” he writes of how a rapturous taste sealed his consciousness with a power not even kisses could conquer. But there were girls, some that got away, one that didn’t. Their stories are vividly, pleasurably remembered.

Hertneky did get away, eventually. Maybe it was that first sight of the Atlantic Ocean from a Massachusetts beach that did it. Maybe it was Boston and Cambridge that sealed it. But whatever, it was firmly grounded in the hills of Pennsylvania with a deep love that distance could not alter. And sharing that with readers is itself an act of love for the author, clearly.