When journalist Jessica DuLong ditched her dot-com job for the diesels of an antique fireboat, she found a taste of home she hadn’t realized she was missing. Running the engines of retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey made her wonder what America is losing in its shift away from hands-on work. Her work raised questions that crystallized after the boat got called back into service at Ground Zero, where DuLong and the rest of the boat’s civilian crew pumped water to fight blazes.
Vivid and immediate, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America is a journey with an extraordinary guide—a mechanic’s daughter and Stanford graduate who bridges blue-collar and white-collar worlds, turning a phrase as deftly as she does a wrench. As she searches for the meaning of work in America, DuLong shares her own experiences of learning to navigate a traditionally male world, masterfully interweaving unforgettable present-day characters with four centuries of Hudson River history.
A celebration of craftsmanship, My River Chronicles is a deeply personal story of a unique woman’s discovery of her own roots—and America’s—that raises important questions about our nation’s future.
1. While working in the engine room, Jessica speculates about the men stationed there before her. “Did they feel left out of the action down here in the cellar? Did they chain-smoke, read, play cards to pass the time while they waited for the pilot’s next command? Career guys, most of them … their uncles, fathers, and brothers … had laid down the paving stones that marked their nepotistic path. There were no paving stones for me” (7). What factors make Jessica unique in the engine room? What drives her decision to invest so much time and energy into fireboat John J. Harvey? What precipitates her full-fledged commitment into working on the boat?
2. Does Jessica’s heritage and upbringing influence her decision to work aboard fireboat John J. Harvey? How so? Look to pages 80-84 and discuss.
3. Jessica meets many colorful characters along her journey to become one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers. Who do you think is the most outlandish character and why? Who do you think influences Jessica the most?
4. The Hudson River is actually not a river, but “a tidal estuary where fresh water from the mountains mixes with salt water from the sea” (46). Consider the role of the Hudson in the story. How does Jessica’s perspective on the river change once she starts steering the tugboat? How does the river help change Jessica’s understanding of the world? How does it help shape the story of fireboat John J. Harvey? Of New York City?
5. Even as the fireboat’s condition declines, the crew persists with their mission to save her. Why do you think preservation is so important to the crew and to Jessica? Do you agree? What’s the point of preserving old things (see pages 88 and 219)? Have you ever saved something that had outlived its original function? What was it and what did it mean to you? Did it end up serving a new function?
6. An important theme in the book is the loss of hands-on work in America. Jessica notes that what she had been missing at her dot-com job was the ability to hold her work in her hands (33), and John Ratzenberger calls the shift away from blue-collar jobs the “industrial tsunami” (245). What is your reaction to the idea of an “industrial tsunami”? How does technology transform culture? In what ways has society changed since the dawn of the industrial revolution? What have we lost? What have we gained?
7. Much of the tension in this story comes in the competition between progress and tradition in river communities. Where else do you see this tension? Can it be resolved or must one always outweigh the other?
8. Do you think every child should go to college? Why or why not? How are people who work with their hands regarded in today’s society? How might this affect young people’s career choices? Do your local schools and community provide opportunities for young people to tinker?
9. How do the September 11th attacks shape the story of fireboat John J. Harvey? How do they shape Jessica’s personal story? How did they affect your community? What roles do American identity and patriotism play in this book? Turn to pages 57-69 and discuss.
10. Jessica traces the movement in manufacturing toward producing goods with an intentionally limited lifespan. What are the implications of this trend?
11. What challenges does Jessica face as a woman in a nontraditional occupation? How do other characters treat her, and how does that affect her ability to do her job? Discuss the ways in which Jessica overcomes sexism in her role as engineer aboard fireboat Harvey. How does she do it? Look to pages 166-168 and discuss. Have you ever experienced discrimination? How did it affect you?
12. Think about the camaraderie in the maritime community. Despite facing discrimination, Jessica forges ahead to learn skills, earn credentials, and develop relationships that help her navigate the male-dominated waters. Have you ever considered working in an industry with seemingly insurmountable obstacles? Does Jessica’s experience make you see it differently?
13. Jessica likens steering a tugboat to writing a poem: “Every fragmentary decision counts in shaping the form and the flow” (126). Is there a connection between art and boats for Jessica? Is she choosing an artistic life or a practical one, or both?
14. Revisit Jessica’s first fireboat trip (page 26-30). How did this experience help change the course of her life? Jessica writes that working on boats delivers her back home in a way she was never home before (120). Why do you think this is? Why do you think she makes this radical change in her life? Have you ever had a similar experience, or is there a change in your work life that you would like to make if you could?
15. My River Chronicles conveys a concern that some jobs are “dumbed down” by the advancement of technology. Do you think Americans are losing some measure of common sense as technology progresses? Why or why not?
16. What work/hobbies/activities do you participate in that involve hands-on work? How do these activities affect your life? How is working at a desk different from doing physical work? What are the differences between mental and physical fatigue?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. In My River Chronicles, Jessica meets a number of artists who follow in the footsteps of the Hudson River School. Have each member of your group bring in a copy of a painting by Stephen Fox or an illustration by Mark Peckham. Tape the paintings on the wall and host a “gallery exhibit.” What do you notice about the artwork? How does it make you feel? Look to pages 217-219 and 250-254 to inform your perspective on these paintings and illustrations.
2. In sharing her experiences in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Jessica explains how helping in small but meaningful ways offers some solace in the midst of devastating tragedy. “Some of the ways we help can seem so trivial, but doing something—anything—matters” (69). Plan a day of service with your reading group. Volunteer at a local firehouse, school, hospital, nursing home, or soup kitchen, or organize a food-and-clothing drive for neighbors in need. Afterward, discuss how helping—even in a small way—affected your group. Did this experience help you better understand Jessica’s?
3. In the children’s book Fireboat (Picture Puffin Books, 2005) author Maria Kalman depicts the crew of fireboat John J. Harvey. Read the book as a group and discuss how similar or different it is from My River Chronicles. Did Jessica’s character in Fireboat remind you of the Jessica portrayed in My River Chronicles? Did the illustrations help bring to life the boat and its crew?
A Conversation with Jessica DuLong
Q: How do you balance your blue- and white-collar roles, as writer and engineer?
A: Now instead of one job, I have two. I’m constantly juggling writing work and boat work. The balancing act is challenging, but I’ve realized I need to exercise both parts of my brain (and body) to feel whole. I love having the privilege to research and write the stories of captivating people and places, and I crave the immediate, tangible, cause-and-effect feedback I receive from hands-on work on the boats.
Sometimes the juggling creates a sense of balance, too, because working on boats has a way of reprioritizing what actually matters most at any given moment. Weather, for example, can change everything. On occasion I’ve had to set aside an important writing deadline to take care of a boat emergency—a broken furnace in sub-zero temperatures, a high-water alarm. Addressing these urgencies takes priority because of basic physical realities, and a part of me likes the reminder: Confronting the immutable forces of nature grants me new perspectives on what is actually important in the here and now, and I’ve found this to be a valuable lesson in living one’s life.
Q: How did your father, who is a mechanic, influence your decision to become an engineer?
A: I was encouraged by both my parents to carve my own path, and I know that’s helped me have the flexibility to jump at opportunities as they arise. I grew up surrounded by tools, diagnostic challenges, and the message that when something is broken you fix it yourself. But I never really acquired the skills to live up to that mandate. I didn’t think mechanical work was something I was good at, and society didn’t offer much encouragement to keep trying. But my time on boats has opened up whole new worlds. I was fortunate to find a skilled and patient teacher in Tim Ivory. I came aboard the fireboat, infinitely curious about how things worked (a trait I’d inherited from my father) yet knowing nothing. Tim created the space for me to ask anything—even the most basic questions—which is crucial for real learning. That kind of encouragement brought the values I learned in childhood together with the practical experience that allowed me to grow as an engineer.
Q: How does a hard day of physical labor compare to working at a desk job?
A: There’s a satisfaction to physical work, to taxing your muscles, pushing your body to its limits that I don’t get from sitting at a desk. Bodies are designed to move, and my body complains if I’m stuck in one place for too long. The staying still is what makes a desk job physically demanding—that, and the strain on the eyes and certain muscle groups that comes from typing at computer for many hours.
But one of the things that many people don’t realize is how mentally challenging many hands-on jobs are as well. The notion that hands-on work doesn’t require brains is a myth. My engineering work has challenged my mind as much as, if not more than, any other job I’ve ever had.
Q: What is it like being a woman in a nontraditional occupation, and one of the only female fireboat engineers in the world?
A: From the beginning my crew on the fireboat has been incredibly supportive. My gender has mostly been a non-issue. To them I’m just crew. In this I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve spoken to a lot of women in nontraditional occupations and that is not always the case. But things sometimes get a little trickier in the rest world. I’ve dealt with curious looks, being hit on, inappropriate comments, even physical contact. A carpenter I interviewed for a story once explained how walking onto a job site feels like being on a catwalk. I’ve definitely experienced that and it takes a lot of energy to shield against that “watched” feeling so I can focus on the job at hand. The worst harassment I’ve ever faced was during the prep course for my Coast Guard license exams. That experience knocked the wind out of me. While it was excruciating to write that chapter, I felt it crucial to tell the story. Despite all this, I’m excited for girls growing up today. I think the country is changing and they’ll have more and more choices about how they want to make their lives and their livings.
Q: How did your porthole view of the Hudson River from the fireboat’s engine room lead you to start asking larger questions about the river’s history and its role as a primary driver of the American economy?
A: My fascination with the Hudson River grew out of the fact that with my strange, telescoped view of the river, I couldn’t see how the individual towns on the fireboat’s whistle stops fit into the Hudson as a whole. Even though I’m technically in the river when I’m standing at the control pedestal, I can’t see much of it. So the Hudson remained a mystery. I started investigating and soon discovered how critical innovations and advancements born on the Hudson charted the course for America’s rise to power. A birthplace of American industry, the Hudson, I learned, was a hub that shaped the country.
Then I realized that some of the key questions the United States is facing today about who we want to be as a nation are playing out right here on this river. By tracing the rise and decline of industry along the Hudson, we can see the changes brought about by shifting priorities now unfolding throughout the country as a whole. Examining this particular region sheds raises important questions about our nation’s future.
Q: How did your experiences working on the fireboat at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks influence you?
A: Those were devastating days, and writing about them in this book brought the nightmare, and the complicated mix of feelings right back. Like so many people who served at Ground Zero, I was plagued, for a time, by feelings of guilt and helplessness about not being able to do enough. Ultimately, however, I was proud that the boat I had come to love was able to serve her city in New York’s hour of greatest need. In the face of tragedy, fireboat John J. Harvey had a way of connecting me with the power of history, with the Hudson River, and with America’s roots.
It was an honor to help the boat perform the service for which she’d been built. Just two years prior she was facing the scrap heap. Now, there she was pumping Hudson River water, the only water available to firefighters for days following the towers’ collapse. She was still able to pump water all those years later because she had been built in an age when fine craftsmanship and building things to last were guiding principles in American manufacturing. I came to realize that those ideals are a piece of our country’s heritage that we need to get back to.
After the fireboat was called back into service, the questions I had about what the United States is losing in our shift away from hands-on work crystallized. I realized that not only do I need both my blue- and white-collar worlds, but the nation does too. When buildings come down you need a firefighter, not a stockbroker. In those moments, knowing how to use a cutting torch was far more valuable than having a university degree. The crisis brought new respect for blue-collar workers. It drew my attention to how physical labor has been devalued in this country, and launched my quest to understand the changing meaning of work in the America.
Q: When you started My River Chronicles, did you set out to write a patriotic book?
A: Not overtly, but through my research I came to appreciate American heritage in new ways. Growing up I recognized the honor in hands-on work, and witnessed how others looked down on people with certain kinds of jobs. The truth is the country needs both blue- and white-collar workers, and needs to strike a better balance between manufacturing and service economies. Our American identity, our economic power, does not exist solely on Wall Street; it lives in the tradition of innovation and in the muscle and sweat that built the nation. The soul of our country developed through making things, through innovation, and through hands-on work, and the United States will lose a part of its soul if we abandon that.
This is not just about nostalgia; it’s a call for the future. I’m not saying we should go back to the old ways, but that American skills should be cumulative. We need to integrate our high-tech, knowledge-based economy with our skills for making things. This is crucial for the United States to be a strong, productive, self-sufficient nation.