Bakerton is a community of company houses and church festivals, of union squabbles and firemen's parades. Its neighborhoods include Little Italy, Swedetown, and Polish Hill. For its tight-knit citizens - and the five children of the Novak family - the 1940s will be a decade of excitement, tragedy, and stunning change. Baker Towers is a family saga and a love story, a hymn to a time and place long gone, to America's industrial past, and to the men and women we now call the Greatest Generation. It is a feat of imagination from an extraordinary voice in American fiction, a writer of enormous power and skill.
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Jennifer Haigh's first novel, Mrs. Kimble, was an auspicious debut about three women who marry the same man--consecutively--and their ability to kid themselves about who he is, and, more to the point, who they are. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award, given annually for best first fiction. Haigh has beaten the sophomore slump with another page-turner: Baker Towers. The action, such as it is, takes place in post-World War II Bakerton, a Pennsylvania mining town. "...[T]he town's most famous landmark, known locally as the Towers, two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing... The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things. Haigh lets us know this on page two, setting the backdrop for the family drama of the Novaks.
The story begins with the death of Stanley Novak, wife of Rose and father of Georgie, Dorothy, Joyce, Lucy, and Sandy. This is an Italian-Polish marriage, tolerated, but a break with the town's tradition. The personality, temperament and needs of all five Novaks are made clear to us by their choices--although they are not always clear to the Novaks. Their interaction, with each other and their community, is the stuff of the novel. Life revolves around the mines, the Church, gossip, and sports. Many times throughout the book it seems that Haigh is using a camera rather than a pen, so perfectly does she create a scene for the reader.
Georgie struggles to get away from Bakerton after his military service by going to Philadelphia and marrying the boss's daughter, a decision he lives to regret. Dorothy gets a job in D.C., but never really fits into the scene. A breakdown brings her home for good. Joyce joins the military, is appalled by the way she is treated, and hastens home to care for her ailing mother. Lucy, overweight and unwelcome with the "in" crowd, longs to be Fire Queen, the pinnacle of acceptance in Bakerton. Sandy, handsome and unreliable, leaves for big city life, finds it, and comes home periodically to hide out.
Haigh has captured these people's lives as they play out, more acted upon than acting. None of the Novaks is self-reflective; the girls accept the status quo, the boys escape and find that they have taken themselves with them. A foreshadowing of the changes that will take place is symbolized by a horrific mine explosion at the end of the book. This life that Haigh has so carefully described will soon disappear forever, for good or ill, but she has illuminated its current reality with a sure hand. --Valerie RyanAbout the Author:
Jennifer Haigh is the author of The Condition, Baker Towers, and Mrs. Kimble, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications. She lives in the Boston area.
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