Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was expecting Baker Towers to be about the experience of working in a coal mine, since it takes place in a mining town. But this is the forties when gender roles were more clearly defined than they are today and Jennifer Haigh opted to emphasize the experience of the women. I was left with a clear understanding of how to clean a miner's clothes, but not how to dig coal. In some ways this choice made the book unique, but it also revealed how life in a coal town was like life in countless other small towns.
The story is centered on the Novak family. The miners in Bakerton are mostly Italian and Polish immigrants. Stanley Novak is Polish and his wife, Rose, is Italian, so this family has both traditions in their heritage. Most of the story is about their children, second generation immigrants.
Stanley dies early on in the book leaving Rose to raise her five children. Of those five, the two boys, George and Sandy, leave town. George goes off to fight in the war and Sandy, who misses the fighting because he is younger, goes off to find a life more exciting than the one he had in Barkerton. Haigh tells us a little about George's life and next to nothing about Sandy's. The story is mostly about Dorothy, Joyce, and Lucy, who have very different personalities, intriguing relationships, and daily problems with which most readers can identify. Here's a section discussing Dorothy's limited opportunities:
She [Dorothy] sewed sleeves at the Bakerton Dress Company, a low brick building at the other end of town. Each morning Rose watched the neighborhood women tramp there like a civilian army. A few even wore trousers, their hair tied back with kerchiefs. What precisely they did inside the factory, Rose understood only vaguely. The noise was deafening, Dorothy said; the floor manager made her nervous, watching her every minute. After seven months she still hadn't made production. Rose worried, said nothing. For an unmarried woman, the factory was the only employer in town. If Dorothy were fired she'd be forced to leave, take the train to New York City and find work as a housemaid or cook. Several girls from the neighborhood had done this – quit school at fourteen to become live-in maids for wealthy Jews. The Jews owned stores and drove cars; they needed Polish-speaking maids to wash their many sets of dishes. A few Bakerton girls had even settled there, found city husbands; but for Dorothy this seemed unlikely. Her Polish was sketchy, thanks to Stanley's rules. And she was terrified of men. At church, in the street, she would not meet their eyes.
I also read Faith by Jennifer Haigh. I liked that novel a bit more than this one, because it expanded into a large issue I found interesting. But this is still a five star book. It's well written and presents an honest picture of the lives of young women in small town America.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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