Alma Combs’ father, Chet, works in a coal mine that’s had one too many accidents. After the latest scare, he decides it’s time to move his family up north; he knows a man who found a job in a factory there, and is sure he’ll be able to do the same. Alma, who shares a special bond with her father, is sad to leave the mountains where they dreamed of having a farm someday, but she’s also excited to see Detroit. As an aspiring artist, she’s bitten by the big-city bug almost immediately, and she’s enamored of Detroit’s soaring architecture, well-dressed socialites and beautiful paintings at the art institute. Obsessed with leaving her “hillbilly” image behind, Alma fixates on beauty and refinement, and is embarrassed by her mother’s old-fashioned, spendthrift ways. The novel follows Alma and the other members of the Combs family as they attempt to weather difficult times, each encountering their own personal demons. Soon the story, as seen mostly through Alma’s eyes, moves from the depths of the Depression into the booming era of World War II. The author effectively shows not just the outward effects of the changing economy, but its emotional toll as well, and as Alma leaves her childhood innocence behind and attempts to become a great artist, she becomes a study in contradictions. Van Haren skillfully creates a protagonist who’s not likable per se, but certainly redeemable, and very much a product of her times. Alma’s growth as a person, and her engaging relationship with her family, keep the novel whizzing along. That said, the story hits a few predictable notes and sometimes veers away from more serious moral issues, such as a possible connection between Alma’s patron and the Nazis. However, the majority of the novel looks hard at Alma’s missteps, and paints a full portrait of her struggle for the American Dream.
A conventional but often pleasurable look at a family during a turning point in American history.