Beckley on Reichard, 'Blood and Steel: Ryan White, the AIDS Crisis and Deindustrialization in Kokomo, Indiana'

Author: 
Ruth D. Reichard
Reviewer: 
Lindsey Beckley

Ruth D. Reichard. Blood and Steel: Ryan White, the AIDS Crisis and Deindustrialization in Kokomo, Indiana. Jefferson: McFarland, 2021. 250 pp. $23.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-4264-2; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-8489-5.

Reviewed by Lindsey Beckley (Indiana Historical Bureau) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (August, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57991

In Blood and Steel: Ryan White, the AIDS Crisis and Deindustrialization in Kokomo, Indiana, Ruth D. Reichard traces the parallels between two crises that gripped Kokomo, Indiana, in the 1980s: the closure of the town’s largest employer, Continental Steel, and the battle to keep Ryan White, a teenage boy living with AIDS, out of Western Middle School. She also explores how the city has attempted to recover, or hide, from these crises in the years since.

Writing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Reichard has produced an extremely relevant history that echoes many events of the last two years. Particularly relevant is Reichard’s assessment of the media’s role in the public perception of the AIDS epidemic: “Consumers of the news could pick and choose which information seemed most credible to them, and then filter it through their preexisting prejudices and fears” (p. 57). Throughout the book, she walks a fine line of explaining the fear and misinformation surrounding AIDS in the early 1980s while also emphasizing that the information needed to make informed and rational decisions regarding AIDS in the classroom was available to those in the position to make hard decisions. She ties these issues to the financial decisions being made by the leadership of Continental Steel.

While drawing from a long list of scholarly works covering the AIDS epidemic, the American blood industry, the life of White, and the deindustrialization of American cities, the author also uses a wide range of primary sources, particularly archival issues of the Kokomo Tribune newspaper, which gives readers an idea of community sentiment in the periods discussed. The intersectionality of the AIDS epidemic and deindustrialization is an interesting one and fills a gap in the towering AIDS historiography. A similar study of other small American cities could lead to a better understanding of an overlooked, underlying influence on the public perception of the AIDS epidemic. Reichard touches on the gender dynamics at play, noting that men were the primary victims of both AIDS and deindustrialization, but leaves a more thorough examination of those dynamics to future scholars.

Reichard has organized the book into seven chapters, each with an introduction and three sections: “Steel,” “Blood,” and “Ryan White.” The book explores the events of 1980s Kokomo in chronological order, with each chapter head presenting a theme that runs through each section. Chapter 1 introduces us to White, Continental Steel, and the blood industry in America. Chapters 2 and 3 set up the opposing viewpoints of Kokomo’s “Concerned Citizens” group and supporters of White, and they outline the many financial struggles of Continental Steel. Chapter 4 focuses on four months between 1985 and 1986 that would prove to be the apex of both the struggle to save Continental Steel and the fight to keep White out of school. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the fallout from Continental Steel’s closure and the ongoing public relations disaster stemming from the Concerned Citizens’ activities. Chapter 7 scrutinizes the legacy of Continental Steel and White in Kokomo and nationally.

Overall, the book makes a solid argument for the intertwining of the two crises in Kokomo, and the author’s understanding of the intersection of disease, economic distress, and community activism is evident. She lays out the parallels and contrasts clearly: White was wasting away from AIDS even as Continental Steel was faltering, Kokomo citizens donated thousands of dollars for the Concerned Citizens’ court costs while laid off steelworkers wondered how to feed their families, and the community was treating White as a source of contamination while ignoring the true source of contamination, Continental Steel. However, the structure of the book creates the feeling of reading three books simultaneously: one about White, one about the blood industry, and one about Continental Steel. Further topic integration could have strengthened the argument.

This book is a fascinating read, particularly from the vantage point of mid-2022, when our nation continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic while also facing the increasingly alarming spread of the monkey pox virus. Reichard has produced a significant contribution through a novel look at the intersectionality of the history of deindustrialization with the ever-relevant history of the AIDS epidemic in America.

Citation: Lindsey Beckley. Review of Reichard, Ruth D., Blood and Steel: Ryan White, the AIDS Crisis and Deindustrialization in Kokomo, Indiana. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57991

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