Thursday, March 11, 2010

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

Pennsylvania coal mining country isn’t a glamorous setting for a novel. Coal mining is dirty business and the eponymous Baker towers are two huge piles of coal mining waste that dominate the town of Bakerton. The Italian and Polish immigrant miners of Bakerton in the 1940’s are just getting by, living in company houses, shopping at the company store. The Novak family, whose story this is, suffers from more than its share of troubles, including the premature death of Stanley, the patriarch. His wife Rose soldiers on and manages to raise five children with mixed results. In Baker Towers we follow the lives of Rose and her children through the 1940’s, 1950’s and early 1960’s. There’s lots of coming and going, and coming of age, as children grow up and leave, but cannot stay away.

This book reminds me a lot of After This by Alice McDermott. Haigh uses the same light touch, checking in and out of her characters’ lives over the course of many years, illuminating both their disappointments and their victories. Both books feature working class Catholic families and describe the cultural upheavals experienced by this group in the middle of the 20th century. Both authors have the gift of understatement.

In Baker Towers the middle daughter Joyce is born in the mid-1930’s, around the same time my mother was born. My mother grew up in the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania around Wilkes-Barre, which is east of, but similar to, the area described in Baker Towers. Her grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants and her father started working in the mines when he was 8 years old. By the early 1950’s most miners were making good union wages and my grandparents could afford to send my mother to nursing school in Philadelphia, thereby ensuring her escape to the middle class. In Baker Towers the fatherless Joyce isn’t so lucky.

(Book 13, 2010)


Amused said...

I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago! This time period is one I always tend to enjoy books set in and the family was one I really wanted to root for. Glad to see you liked it too.

Cath said...

I think Amused and I bonded over our love for this book. :) It seriously is underappreciated. I read it every few months!

gina said...

I'll have to check this out. I'm also from Pennsylvania coal country. My grandfathers and their brothers all worked in the mines.

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