An elegant, elegiac multigenerational saga about a small coal-mining community in western Pennsylvania that shows how talented she really is.
Fast on the heels of her PEN/Hemingway-winning if stagy first novel (Mrs. Kimble, 2003), Haigh turns a careful, loving eye on the sociology of the town of Bakerton, resting her focus most intently on the Poles and Italians who work together but live in their own neighborhoods. At the heart of the story are the five children of Stanley Novak, a Polish miner, and his Italian wife Rose. When Stanley dies of a heart attack in 1944, oldest son George is away in the Pacific. Eighteen-year-old Dorothy, diffident and plain, takes a secretarial position in Washington, DC, after losing her factory job. High-schooler Joyce shows unusual academic gifts. Eight-year-old Sandy is a charmer. And Lucy is a baby. Over the years, the siblings, along with a host of friends and neighbors, grow and evolve, sometimes as expected, sometimes not. George, eager to escape the mines, marries into a wealthy Philadelphia family (the one jarring note here being his spoiled wife’s lack of redeeming characteristics) and erases his connection with home. Dorothy, broken by her experience in the outside world, returns to Bakerton, where she’s redeemed by a love affair with a divorced man. Joyce attempts to escape into the Air Force but comes back home out of a sense of duty to her ailing mother, then slowly builds a rewarding life for herself. Sandy becomes a drifter. Well-educated, thanks to Joyce, Lucy chooses life in Bakerton. Their lives unfold in episodes that tie the individual to the community, and the lines of connection between characters—even the most minor—weave an intricate social tapestry. By the time the mines close for good, every thread connects.
Almost mythic in its ambition, somewhere between Oates and Updike country, and thoroughly satisfying.