Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1940s / WWII / Soldiers / Families / Immigrants / Coal Mining / Western Pennsylvania)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (1/1/2006)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Five children of coal-mining immigrants grow up in 1940s Pennsylvania, impacted by the war, the loss of their father, and the changing world around them.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, immensely -- it could easily be one of the Novak girls, on a borrowed car -- it sets up the mood of this volume very well.
I'm reminded of...: Ellen Feldman
First line: Softly the snow falls.
Am... I still thinking about this book, days after finishing?: YES. I suspect as time goes on, it will stick with me, and I'm pretty sure I'll need at least one reread.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- it's a lovely, quiet, moving novel of a family.
Why did I get this book?: I've heard nothing but good things about Haigh's books, and the 1940s coal town setting of this novel immediately appealed to me.
Review: This is a good book that becomes great; or maybe it was always great, and it just snuck up on me. I lingered over this novel, picking it up and now, since the chapters vary in length and POV. It was easy to dip in and out of the Novaks' lives, but Haigh's writing style and gentle characterizations kept me coming back.
Set in Bakerton, a coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, Haigh paints a picture of the Novak family, Polish-Italian immigrants who struggle to chart their own existence in a place where most people live and die in the mines. Beginning in the 1940s, with World War II looming in the background, the story travels about twenty years or so. This isn't a quiet novel, not exactly -- there's plenty of characters and plenty of life happening -- but the book doesn't race along with a single plot line. One hundred pages in, I wondered when the story would start; about 200 pages in, I worried about the story ending.
The story of the Novaks is familiar but that isn't a bad thing. Haigh shares with us an American narrative that has become mythologized; in her hands, I see myself, my family, my relatives, my neighbors in the Novak's story. My only complaint (but that's too strong a word since I'm not actually unhappy) was the shifting focus -- I would have rather the novel stayed with one of the Novak kids rather than shift focus -- but Haigh's writing kept me going on.
This is a novel that lingers with the reader. A week after finishing, I find myself still chewing over scenes or characters, and I've more than once wished there was a sequel of sorts so I could remain with the Novaks. If you want something meaty but not heavy or hard, consider this -- it is easy to get into and it's moving without feeling soul-crushing.
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