Tag Archives: baker towers

NEWS FROM HEAVEN by Jennifer Haigh

A new book out from Jennifer Haigh is always cause for celebration here at EDIWTB. I think she has become my favorite contemporary author. Her books are rich, layered stories, usually about families, told in a distinctive gentle, quiet tone that immediately sucks me in and keeps me reading to the last page. There is always sadness and loss in her books, but they aren’t depressing. Instead, they are realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of life, and the myriad disappointments, secrets, thrills and dreams that make up our individual histories.

News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, which just came out two weeks ago, is a collection of stories that extend the post-war Pennsylvania mining town world Haigh created in Baker Towers (reviewed here). There are a number of characters here that overap with those in Baker Towers; in some cases, Haigh has filled out lives that were skeletal in Baker Towers, and in others she has added new chapters to lives she left at the end of her previous work.

Not all of these stories take place in Bakerton, but the claustrophobic, past-its-prime town plays a role in each of them. Everyone returns home to their once high-flying but now dying town, it seems, whether to visit, or in a casket, or in shame, or for a sense of belonging and history. Haigh’s stories span half a century, and there are many stages here – not only of her characters’ lives, but of the town’s history.

I enjoyed that most of these stories had a catch at the end – a little twist that cast the rest of the story in a new light. I found myself speeding up at the end of the chapters, eager to reach that “Eureka!” moment that Haigh had quietly dropped in. An infidelity discovered many years later, or the discovery that a revered hometown hero was keeping a secret, or simply the question of whether a younger man in an unexpected relationship had honorable intentions or not – these are the little mysteries that Haigh solves throughout the collection.

My only complaint is my typical one about short stories – they just aren’t as satisfying as novels. Each of these chapters could have been its own novel, and I was sad to see it end every time. But I won’t complain – a new Haigh book is a new Haigh book, and it’s simply a treasure.

BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh

Baker I just finished another excellent book from Jennifer Haigh – Baker Towers.

Baker Towers is about the Novak family of Bakerton, PA – a mother and her five children living in a coal town in the 40s. The book looks at the heyday of company towns, ethnic neighborhoods united by a common line of work, and America’s industrial history, all through the lives of Rose Novak and her children – sons who move away, and daughters who stay close to home.

I loved Baker Towers for two reasons. The first is the subject matter – the rise and fall of this quintessentially American town, and the exploitation of its citizens, particularly the black-lung afflicted miners doing dangerous, backbreaking work, by the engine of capitalism and profit. I love American history, and I greatly enjoyed the world Haigh recreated through painstaking detail and research. I also liked how the families in this book remained entwined throughout multiple generations.

The second is Haigh’s incredible storytelling and writing. She is the master of understatement – just like in Mrs. Kimble and The Condition, the writing in Baker Towers always had me hanging on every word, wanting more. She doles out plot and character sparingly, but with precision and perfect pacing – one can never skim a Haigh novel for fear of missing something crucial.

Here is a passage I especially liked:

Ed sighed. This was another problem with Catholics: nobody ever died. Joyce often spoke of her parents looking down from heaven – sometimes with pride or amusement, but usually with disapproval or downright horror. This struck Ed as a terrible burden, this sense of being watched by all your dead relatives, by numberless saints who’d been dead a thousand years but still kept a hand in things, interceding for the sick, finding lost objects, looking out for coal miners and whoever else had a dangerous job. Ed believed in God, but he also believed in death.

Jennifer Haigh has quickly become one of my favorite authors. I really hope she has another book coming out soon! In the meantime, if you haven’t read any of her novels, I highly, highly recommend them.