Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

Raised in a coal-mining town, they can't truly leave home

Reviewed by Tess Taylor


Baker Towers

By Jennifer Haigh

MORROW; 334 PAGES; $24.95

Bakerton is the coal-mining boomtown of Saxon County, Pa. In the shadow of two looming coal towers, its brick shops and miner's hospital were built with coal money, and its row houses are filled with Polish and Italian immigrants. It's a small town, or it seems that way. Everyone knows its bars, its railroad depot, its company store and fuming ash piles, its several churches and its dress factory where the women work when the money gets tight. Everyone knows its two funeral homes.

Jennifer Haigh's new novel, "Baker Towers," begins with a wide-angle shot of this town and then focuses in on the courtship of Rose and Stanley Novak, who meet in line at the butcher shop and then meet again when he comes into the shop where she works as a tailor. He leaves his wedding suit behind to be tailored, and her face flushes at the sound of his voice. She sews the suit carefully for him and finds herself thinking oddly of his wedding night. But Stanley doesn't come back to collect the suit. When he does come, several months later, his face flushes at hers. In a few strokes Haigh launches their courtship: "That Friday he took her to a Christmas dance at the town hall, and a month later he wore the suit to her wedding. ... By the end of the festivities, she was already pregnant."

Again and again, Haigh will spin a charming little bit of story and then drop it again. She needs to lift off and touch down gracefully, because she's got a lot of ground to cover: Her novel is not so much the portrait of a marriage as it is the portrait of a family, a town, the rise and fall of an era. Within a few pages, Rose has, despite her best intentions, given birth to five children. Stanley is dead: He escapes a mine alarm only to fall down face first in their bathroom. Rose is left alone to raise her five Novaks -- Dorothy, Joyce, Sandy, George and Lucy -- whom she dresses in flour sacks and feeds with gnocchi made from stale bread. Haigh spends time looking at the town through the eyes of these children, each of whom goes out to find the world in very different ways. George goes to war. Joyce, who is smart and wants to leave, goes down to Washington, D.C., and stays in a boarding house with a red-lipsticked roommate with a passion for soldiers. Sandy slinks away to a slightly mysterious life on the road. Lucy, the youngest, grows up fatherless and alone with her aging mother and older sister, observing the coal strikes and the arrival of the first wave of rock 'n' roll.

Haigh's got a keen way of getting inside the hopes and discomforts of her characters. She moves lightly between snippets of anecdote and insight, creating her world sparingly, convincingly, matter-of-factly. During Stanley's wake, she follows Joyce: "In the parlor, the men drank. They lowered their voices when Joyce came into the room. Mr. Wojick switched in midsentence from English to Polish. She avoided looking at the casket. Instead she cleared the empty bottles from beside the chairs." The writing goes on this way, slipping between characters without too much sentiment.

The siblings are independent, only partly aware of each other, yet also drawn together by their bonds to their mother and to the strange run-down place where they grew up. They're called by the town even if they hate it and want to leave it entirely: When George comes back to town in the '50s after marrying a Mainline WASP, he finds that the high school girlfriend he once thought he'd marry has married his best friend from childhood. Haigh spends a moment with him as he uneasily watches the couple together in the old hometown. "In his boozy state, his old buddy seemed to be a kind of bookmark, holding his place in a life he himself had started but decided not to finish. The company house, the redheaded children, the woman George could have (and maybe should have -- probably, definitely should have) married." It's this kind of ambivalence that Haigh gets so well, feelings of love and hate and regret in a place that is not at all lovely and has hurt the Novaks, but which has also fed and raised them. And her backdrop, at once sweeping and detailed, gets at the arc of an era, neither good nor bad, but odd in its passing. These children of miners grow up and around them, even the place that they hated crumbles, erodes and changes entirely, as one by one its mines empty. •