Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

book cover Baker Towers is a family saga set in the fictional mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania.

It begins with the death of the Novak family head in 1944 (although there are references to events that happened before this) and ends in the 1970s, when the town has begun to fall into decline. Haigh tracks the lives of the Novak family through the intervening decades, chronicling the impact of change in American society on this small town, and its characters. There are five children in the Novak clan. When we first meet them, George, the oldest, is serving in the military; his youngest sibling, Lucy, is piping hot out of the oven. Haigh has a talent for giving each of these very different siblings a unique voice. Some have more stage time than others (a flaw she tries to address by tying up some loose ends in a later book); but those in the spotlight are shown clearly and to great effect.

Haigh brings to life diverse aspects of Bakerton life, from the drudgery of factory work to ethnic and religious divisions, from union elections to the plague of black lung, from young love to adult desires, from a wedding with old-world elements to a town dance that summons an image of the Kaaba in Mecca. Haigh looks beyond the town for a bit, describing the experience of single women in DC during the war, and one woman’s post-war experience in the military. But mostly she concentrates on changes in the town and in her characters as the outside world evolves and time marches on. Cars and telephones become ubiquitous. Presidents are elected; one is murdered. But to the citizens of Bakerton, and the Novak family, the world seems distant, an echo over a far hill. But no matter how insulated or isolated they are in this close-knit small town, change seeps into their lives, shaping them in unexpected ways. Haigh offers us temporal touchstones in each chapter, helping orient us in US history.

As might be expected in any tale of a small town, there is much here about longing, but not nearly so much about escape as one might expect. The yearning for fulfillment is at the center of her characters’ lives, along with the fear that this small place may never offer a way to satisfy wants and needs, and might even extinguish hope.

Bakerton did this to people: slowly, invisibly, it made them smaller, compressed by living where little was possible, and where the ceiling was very low.

Not only are opportunities limited in the world of work, the range of the possible in romance is likewise narrow:

It was, she reflected, a dangerous pastime, mooning over the handsome, clever men on the screen. It doomed you to disappointment; it made you expect too much. [She] had never been in love, but felt herself capable of it. She could love Fred Astaire or Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, an elegant, cultivated fellow who wore wonderful clothes and possessed all sorts of hidden talents, who sang and danced and even fought in a way that looked beautiful; who even when he drank was witty and articulate and gentle and wise. The harder job was loving what men really were—soldiers and miners, gruff and ignorant; louts who communicated mainly by cursing, who couldn’t tell you anything about life that you didn’t already know.

The strength of the novel, only Haigh’s second, is her characters. Male and female (well, mostly female), these people are made real. Their desires are made as clear to us as they are to themselves, and we feel an investment in how things turn out for them. Like moviegoers loudly telling the little girl in the horror movie not to go back for her dropped teddy bear. (No, no, don’t do that. He’ll get you!) Or cheering when something right wins out over the opposition of time. (You go, girl!)

Haigh was born and raised in the great metropolis of Barnsboro, PA, a mining town that provided the model for Bakerton. Her grandfathers were miners. I have a bit of an in-house expert to consult on this. My wife was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a more easterly version of Bakerton, a place with street names like Carbon Lane and Anthracite Street, and public spaces like Coal Street Park and Miner’s Park. She tells me that when she read this book some years back she felt as if Haigh had been writing about her town. So we can take it from a local that Haigh nailed it.

One caveat is that there are a lot of characters in this book. While one might be tempted to keep track of them all, to do so might induce madness. Stick to keeping up with the Novaks.

Baker Towers opens with coal cars heading in to town and ends, decades later, with Amish buggies. New, plain residents have emerged, and while they begin to re-green the land, the history that lies beneath remains. Lives go on, or don’t. Directions change, or don’t. Hopes are realized and dreams are dashed. Love is found and squandered. There are satisfactions and regrets. As Haigh makes clear, where you are from may not determine what your life will be, but it has an indelible impact on the person you will ultimately become

PS – I must add that in a rare exception to my usual strictly solo practice, I called on my wife personal editor extraordinaire for some assistance after completing an almost-final cut, and feeling unsatisfied with the result. She deserves partial credit (but no blame) for the contents, as the final edit was mine alone.

PPS – Haigh, eight years after Baker Towers was published, wrote a follow up, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Reviews

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