Sunday, April 15, 2012

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

This novel follows the lives of the Novak family a Polish-Italian clan that make their home in the Philadelphia coal mining town of Bakerton. The book takes its title from the communities most striking landmark two towering eighty foot heaps of scrap coal that glow faintly orange and give a strong whiff of sulfur whenever the wind blows.

When the story begins in 1944, eldest son Georgie is away serving in the South Pacific, one of the many young men drafted during World War II, and Stanley, the Polish patriarch of the family, has just keeled over dead while shaving in the basement. His Italian widow, the voluptuous Rose, develops a sudden insatiable craving for sweets, curious since she never really cared for them before, and goes on to nurture this craving into fat and diabetes, which in time leads to blindness and death. He also leaves behind three daughters. The eldest, shy spinsterish Dorothy takes a government typing job in Washington but suffers a nervous breakdown and has to come home to Bakerton, where she begins an affair with Angelo “Angie” Bernardi, the scandalously divorced nephew of the local Italian Catholic undertaker. Her younger sister, Joyce, is a disciplined scholar who joins a women’s division of the Air Force, wanting to do something important with her life, only to discover that the true, unpublicized motto of the armed forces is not “Serve With Honor” as the recruiting posters proudly proclaim, but “service the men who serve your country.” Disillusioned, when her term of service expires she doesn’t reenlist, citing her mother’s ill health as the reason and returns to Bakerton, to become the family disciplinarian and try to get her mother’s diabetes under control. When she goes looking for work she discovers that her service record doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, the jobs go to the men and veterans first, and she has to resign herself to spending her days sitting behind a sewing machine at the Bakerton Dress Company, which employs most of Bakerton’s working women. But her luck changes, for the better, when she goes to the high school in response to a letter sent home about her little brother, charming, affable wild child Sandy, and meets Ed Hauser, the vice principal. When his secretary has to go on maternity leave, he offers Joyce her job, and the two begin dating and after a lengthy, rather frigid, courtship eventually marry. The third Novak daughter, Lucy, the baby of the family, struggles with her weight and loneliness, silently resenting the control Joyce wields over the household. Only Georgie, the eldest son, truly escapes Bakerton, after the war he gives up his dream of being a doctor and marries into a family that owns a famous department store, but his happiness doesn’t last as his beautiful free-spirited wife, Marion, a wry, sarcastic witted woman who slept in the nude and rose, without dressing, to paint abstract paintings every morning, descends into blank-minded mental illness after the birth of their only son. The novel ends in the late 1950s after a tragedy results in the decline of Bakerton as the heyday of coal peters out.

This is a very interesting novel about life in a coal mining town, like an apple pie slice of American life, though not at all idealized or picturesque, of the immigrants who toiled in the mines and suffered the consequences—the explosions, cave-ins, and Black Lung Disease, shopped in the company store and lived in company houses, and what life was like for their families, all the crises, dramas, and joys. The story moves along at a surprisingly rapid pace, having read the author’s modern-day novel, The Condition, which I found rather slow and plodding, I was a little wary about starting this one, but I am so glad that I did, I read it cover to cover in two days and highly recommend it to anyone who likes novels set in the 1940s and 1950s or stories about small town life.

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