Synopses & Reviews
A stunning follow-up to her bestselling debut, Mrs. Kimble
, Jennifer Haigh returns with Baker Towers
, a compelling story of love and loss in a western Pennsylvania mining town in the years after World War II.
Bakerton is a company town built on coal, a town of church festivals and ethnic neighborhoods, hunters' breakfasts and firemen's parades. Its children are raised in company houses three rooms upstairs, three rooms downstairs. Its ball club leads the coal company league. The twelve Baker mines offer good union jobs, and the looming black piles of mine dirt don't bother anyone. Called Baker Towers, they are local landmarks, clear evidence that the mines are booming. Baker Towers mean good wages and meat on the table, two weeks' paid vacation and presents under the Christmas tree.
The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things.
Born and raised on Bakerton's Polish Hill, the five Novak children come of age during wartime, a thrilling era when the world seems on the verge of changing forever. The oldest, Georgie, serves on a minesweeper in the South Pacific and glimpses life beyond Bakerton, a promising future he is determined to secure at all costs. His sister Dorothy, a fragile beauty, takes a job in Washington, D.C., and finds she is unprepared for city life. Brilliant Joyce longs to devote herself to something of consequence but instead becomes the family's keystone, bitterly aware of the opportunities she might have had elsewhere. Sandy sails through life on looks and charm, and Lucy, the volatile baby, devours the family's attention and develops a bottomless appetite for love.
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 the men and women we now call the Greatest Generation. This is a feat of imagination from an extraordinary new voice in American fiction, a writer of enormous power and skill.
"The second novel by the author of the award-winning Mrs. Kimble depicts life in a postwar Pennsylvania mining town and continues Haigh's exploration of the hardships of women's lives. In the town of Bakerton, dominated by the towers of the title (made of slowly combusting piles of scrap coal), poor families live in ethnic enclaves of company houses. Italian Rose Novak broke with tradition by marrying a Polish man, but he dies in the book's first chapter, and Rose and her five children struggle through the years that follow. The oldest son, Georgie, returns from WWII and avoids the mining life by marrying the posh, cynical daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia store owner. Rose's daughter Dorothy gets a wartime job in glamorous Washington but breaks down and returns to Bakerton, while capable daughter Joyce, who joins the military just as the war ends, comes home to take care of her ailing mother, resenting Georgie and Sandy, the handsome youngest brother, who escape town. Only Rose and Lucy, the awkward youngest daughter, are content with things as they are. The story climaxes with a disaster at the mine, which affects each of the Novak children. Haigh's prose never soars, but she writes convincingly of family and smalltown relations, as well as of the intractable frustrations of American poverty. Agent, Dorian Karchmar. (Jan. 4) Forecast: Strong publisher support, a 25-city author tour and Haigh's solid storytelling could make this a big seller. " Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"An elegant, elegiac multigenerational saga about a small coal-mining community in western Pennsylvania that shows how talented [Haigh] really is....Almost mythic in its ambition, somewhere between Oates and Updike country, and thoroughly satisfying." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Baker Towers is a novel possessing a rare, quiet power to evoke a time long past and the character of the people who lived then." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Haigh uses evocative prose to create a picture of a company town and of the human condition that is both accurate and moving." Library Journal
"Jennifer Haigh gets a memorable grip on family and locale in her vivid novel....[D]ense, lyrical pages....Baker Towers isn't perfect, but it sure is close." Denver Post
"Last year, Jennifer Haigh impressed readers with her brilliant debut, Mrs. Kimble. With her second novel, Haigh does it again differently, but just as well." BookPage
The author of "Mrs. Kimble" returns with an emotionally rich and evocative exploration of community, love, and family set in a western Pennsylvania coal town in the years following World War II.
About the Author
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short story collection News From Heaven and four critically acclaimed novels: Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for work by a New England writer. Her short fiction has been published widely, in The Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories 2012, and many other publications. She lives in the Boston area.
Was Baker Towers inspired by your own family history?
Yes and no. The characters themselves are inventions; they don't resemble anybody in my family. But the details about the town itself, what life was like in the postwar years, definitely came from my parents and other relatives. Baker Towers ends in the Vietnam era, right around the time I was born, so I couldn't rely on my own memories of the period I was writing about. By the time I came along, the coal mines were already in decline. The era of the company town was past, and the region was on its way to become something else. But I grew up hearing about how things used to be, and when I set out to write this book I had a wonderful time interviewing family members about what life was like when coal was king.
How did the characters evolve from the time you began imagining them?
The characters really did develop a generation at a time. When I began writing, Rose and Stanley were clearest to me. I had a vivid mental picture of what they looked like Rose very dark, southern Italian; Stanley a Slavic type, big and blond and I was fascinated by how those two sets of physical traits would combine and manifest in a large family. As far as developing the characters, that happens in the process of writing. Each event in the character's life changes her destiny in some way, and the writer makes these discoveries over time. One of the pleasures of writing a novel is following the characters over many years, from infancy to adulthood. When the story opens, Lucy is two months old; by the end, she is a grown woman. It's important to me that the reader recognizes the child in the adult, that the character "turns out" in a way that seems organic and true.
The novel is packed with details that re-create a vanished world. What were some of your best research sources?
I do my best research by talking to people. These conversations yield more than simple facts; they give me a feel for how people talk, what they remember, which events in their lives hold the greatest significance for them. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time looking at old newspapers and magazines not just the headlines, but the advertisements. I care what people were wearing, what kinds of cars they drove, what groceries cost, what was playing on the radio. Some of this information finds its way onto the page, but most of it doesn't. It's my way of creating a world in my imagination, of making it real and vivid for myself.
How did the experience of writing this novel compare to that of your debut? What is life like now, as a full-time writer?
When I was writing Baker Towers, I felt a real sense of obligation to the region and the people who live there. It's a part of the world that doesn't get written about very often, and it was tremendously important to me that I do it justice, that I get it right. I'd been thinking about this book for many years, before I even wrote Mrs. Kimble; but I wasn't ready to tackle it. I think I sensed that I didn't yet have the skills to write it.
Writing full time is monotonous and lonely, but it works for me. When I'm deep into a novel, the characters are much more real to me than anybody in my own life, and that's necessary for me as a writer. Years ago, when I was writing mostly short stories, I could get by writing in the evenings or on weekends; but when I'm working on a novel, I really benefit from being able to work in long stretches. I write at home, in a quiet room with the curtains drawn. It sounds boring, and it is; but I can't write unless the world in my head is more vivid than my surroundings are. I'm amazed by writers who can compose on airplanes or in coffee shops. Writing is hard for me, and it only works in a place where nothing can distract me.