Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'Em...take our poll!

Baker Towers

(January 26, 2006) When Book-'Em chose Baker Towers as a selection, we never envisioned we would see facsimiles of this novel's pages played out in the media coverage of the recent West Virginia mining tragedy. Jennifer Haigh's second novel is the saga of a small, western Pennsylvania coalmining town, Bakerton, spanning the years between the early 1940's and 1960's. The story revolves around the Novak family although Bakerton itself could be considered as much a character as any of the Novaks are. This book choice would have been a good one even without the timely events of a mining accident to highlight how real a fictional story can feel.

With only a solitary dissenting opinion, Baker Towers was an unqualified success. Rose and Stanley Novak, a marriage that unites the Italian and Polish traditions of the town, have five children. The reader will follow their stories as they struggle to live within the limitations of their small town and will witness their efforts, often futile, to escape it. Expectations, disappointments, shattered illusions, family, and some quiet triumphs fill these pages.

Overwhelmingly, we admired Haigh's deft and graceful storytelling and writing. Winner of the PEN/Hemmingway award for the novel Mrs. Kimble, she writes in a quiet, gentle, simple style but "creates images so vivid, so real, done in a single stroke" as one Book-'Em member enthused. Of the ill-fated crew sent into the mines one December, Haigh tells us that they were "a young crew, like a bone newly set, not yet fused." She doesn't need to say more.

We found her characters, their decisions and their fates quite believable. The reality of how a town and all its occupants can revolve around the underground mining life was corroborated in real-time as we read and watched the news of a modern mining accident. One reader expressed the real charm of this novel: "It's an old fashioned story, a whole world is created here for you."

Discussion focused on how each Novak tried to escape Bakerton. Though their failures are individual and personal, none seem to find the resources they needed to enter the larger world. Is escape any more possible today? What happens to the people and places left behind? Closed factories, steel mills, army bases, corporations all leave similar scars.

Our evening of shared reactions and conversation was as satisfying as the read had been. Baker Towers is recommended for your group, or just for your own personal enjoyment.

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