In Jennifer Haigh’s debut novel Mrs Kimble she traced the lives of three women who, at different times, were married to the same man. In her equally remarkable second novel Haig has turned her attention to one family who live in a small western Pennsylvania coal town called Bakerton over a span of some 40 years, from the late 1920’s until the 1960’s.
Bakerton is full of ethnic neighbourhoods but the two groups that dominate are the Polish immigrants who tend to live on Polish Hill and the Italians. For young Italian seamstress Rose it is love at first sight when she sees Stanley Novak, a handsome Polish miner, at the grocery store but initially he doesn’t even notice her. However within two years they are married, living on Polish Hill and the parents of a son called George, the most American name they could think of.
Over the next twenty years Stanley continues to works in the coal mines while Rose cares for their five children, giving birth to her youngest child Lucy, at the age of 43. By then the United States is at war and oldest son George is in the Navy, stationed in the Pacific. Rose’s oldest daughter, Dorothy, is as beautiful as her mother but even more timid. Middle sister, Joyce, is the most intelligent of the five Novak children and her teacher hopes that she will go on to college. Sandy, the younger brother is both charming and unreliable. Despite the fact that money is limited, the Novak children are essentially happy. Rose showers them with food and love while Stanley is a strong role model who embodies the Puritan work ethic, even if he is a Polish immigrant!
When Stanley dies of a heart attack in 1944 the older Novak children rally around their mother but it is obvious that their father’s death will lead to major changes in all their lives. Over the next twenty years each of the Novak children leaves Bakerton and seeks to attain his or her own version of the American dream. George marries a wealthy socialite but finds that money and happiness do not go hand in hand. Dorothy looks for love and excitement in Washington but discovers what she is looking for back in Bakerton. Joyce joins the army to see the world but eventually returns to her hometown both sadder and wiser. Lucy leaves Bakerton to go to college but she too is drawn back to her family home and to old loves. Sandy is the only one of the five Novak children who appears to break free of Bakerton.
Baker Towers is both a study of one family and of an entire way of life. The Novaks represent all immigrant families who became the backbone of modern America. George and his two sisters are also representative of all the young men who went to war and all the young women who held everything together while the men were away. In Baker Towers Haig has succeeded in capturing another time and place while at the same time creating memorable, believable characters. There are no heroes or villains – there are only ordinary people trying to live with integrity in an increasingly complex world.