The Dollmaker

Harriette Arnow

Published by Vintage 2 March 2017

624pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Imagine a female-centered meld of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and The Grapes of Wrath, set in Kentucky and the working-class projects of Detroit during World War II, and you have the vaguest sense of Arnow’s lost classic, written in 1954 and now reissued by Vintage.

This massive, powerful, graphic, often lyrical and cumulatively tragic portrait of wife and mother Gertie Nevels trying to raise her children and hold her family together despite the contradictory impulses of her marriage, has the epic shape of a nineteenth-century Victorian novel. Realistic and finely detailed, it is shot through with high drama, indeed begins – heart-stoppingly – in that manner as Gertie fights for one of her children’s lives.

Although she will be derided by the Detroit natives as a hillbilly, Gertie is a strong, powerfully-rooted, not especially articulate countrywoman with exceptional skills. She can grow vegetables, smell weather, kill and joint a pig, chop the most obdurate log and, most special of all her gifts, whittle wood into miraculous dolls, crucifixes, animals and much more. One of the strongest, most eloquent metaphors in the novel is her work on a great block of wood, an effort to release the spiritual presence within it.

Born to farm, Gertie’s greatest ambition is to set up herself, her husband Clovis and their five children on their own piece of land, in a sound house, within their own community. And this dream of life, made concrete in the form of The Tipton Place, is almost within her grasp when pressure from Clovis, Gertie’s own mother and convention force her to abandon it. It’s wartime, Clovis has been called up but is now working in a factory in Detroit, earning decent money, and the pressure is for his wife to pick up sticks and join him in the accommodation he has found.

Arnow’s description of living conditions in industrial Detroit is Dickensian. The noise, the squalor, the pathetic government housing and impossible weather – all are evoked grimly yet not to the exclusion of an element of appreciation. The place hums with elements of neighbourliness, and the life force. But for Gertie, the new home comes at a terrible price. Not only has her money for The Tipton Place started to be spent, but their miniscule apartment has stripped her of her rural capabilities and instincts. In Detroit she begins to fail – as a shopper, a cook (using modern appliances and food she hasn’t grown herself) and as a hillbilly, assailed by the bigotry of teachers and others.

Widening her lens, Arnow folds more and more into her story in its urban setting – financial corruption, religious intolerance, racism, consumerism, union coercion, police violence, class. The book, previously rooted in rural poverty, morphs into a noisy, vibrant portrait of the urban working class, following a swelling cast in a large, shifting panorama of American industry. Gertie and her neighbours are in a constant battle to maintain financial security, decency and childcare, helping each other out when circumstances permit and permanently assailed by the larger circumstances not of their making.

Nevertheless it’s Gertie’s long trajectory of loss, suffering and adjustment that drives the story and compels the reader. While Arnow may linger excessively on the clamorous scenes of Detroit, her portrait of Gertie, the countrywoman with limited education but an unmatched instinct for the earth, weather, farming and creativity, dominates the book.

Nor is there a happy ending for Gertie, cast out of her dream of paradise and now dwelling within ever-tightening parameters of financial need. Inarticulate she may be, but her character, her pain and her self-sacrifice render her eloquent and monumental.

As American tragedies go, Arnow’s is a major work, strangely overlooked. How did Virago Modern Classics miss this one? Whatever the explanation, its re-emergence now deserves attention and wide dissemination.

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