by Jennifer Haigh
Published by HarperCollins
335 pages, 2005
Coal Miner's Family
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Loretta Lynn gave us a glimpse into the lives of coal miners' families in Coal Miner's Daughter. In Baker Towers, author Jennifer Haigh expands the view by taking us into the lives of Polish coal miner Stanley Novak, his Italian wife, Rose, and their five children, Georgie, Dorothy, Joyce, Sandy and Lucy.
The coming-of-age novel takes place in the Pennsylvania community of Bakerton, from the coal-mining heyday of 1944 through the late 1960s when the mines were silenced, the towers of black mine dirt replaced by green farmland. Opening with Stanley's untimely and unexpected death, Haigh masterfully weaves the tale of the Novaks as they struggle to restore order to the shifting landscape of their lives.
Haigh instills in each character a distinct personality so that their behavior is consistent without always being predictable. Each of the Novak children finds the road out of Bakerton rife with potholes and unexpected turns. Georgie appears poised to make his dream of becoming a doctor come true, only to end up working in his father-in-law's department store when he marries a wealthy Philadelphia divorcee. Just when shy, socially-inept Dorothy seems to be making progress towards an independent, fulfilling life as a government office clerk in Washington, DC, she suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up back home. Joyce, the over-achiever, attempts to spread her wings by joining the Air Force. Eventually, recoiling from the blatant sexism of the armed forces, she uses her mother's failing health as an excuse to resign. Brother Sandy seems content to get by on looks and charm, but learns there's a price to pay for taking the easy way out. Only Lucy, the baby of the family, appears destined for a life outside Bakerton, yet she willingly chooses to return to her roots.
Lending even more realism, the characters in Baker Towers are prone to changing their opinions as they gain more life-experience. Young Lucy describes her relationship with overbearing sister Joyce this way:
She still disliked Joyce intensely; that had not changed, would not change. The unchangingness comforted her; that, at least, could be counted on. Sturdy, unlikable Joyce could be counted on.
Later, perhaps grateful for Joyce's financing of her college education, Lucy sees things in a different light:
Her sister had changed. Never affectionate, she now embraced Lucy each time she saw her. Instead of giving orders, she asked a million questions about classes and professors, and listened intently to the answers. To her own surprise, Lucy didn't mind the questions.
Baker Towers is Jennifer Haigh's second novel; her first, Mrs. Kimble, was published in 2003 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for outstanding first fiction. Baker Towers seems likely to bring Haigh more acclaim, assuring her a place among outstanding new fiction writers of the millennium. | January 2005
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.