by Harriette Arnow
Strong-willed, self-reliant Gertie Nevels’s peaceful life in the Kentucky hills is devastated by the brutal winds of change. Uprooted from her backwoods home, she and her family are thrust into the confusion and chaos of wartime Detroit. And in a pitiless world of unendurable poverty, Gertie will battle fiercely and relentlessly to protect those things she holds most dear — her children, her heritage . . . and her triumphant ability to create beauty in the suffocating shadow of ugliness and despair.
There are books that you read that you think are good, then there are ones that you think are brilliant, but on top of that there is another category: masterpiece. The Dollmaker is an absolute masterpiece.
If the first chapter of this book doesn’t get your interest nothing will. Gertie Nevels is riding her mule down the hills of kentucky to try to get emergency treatment for her sick son. we get a real taste for Gertie in this chapter, her strength and determination shines through.
Gertie and her family live in rural Appalachia. It is Gertie’s dream to own her own place and for her and her family to live off the land. But these are the dark days of WWII and the men are being taken away. The ones that aren’t conscripted are sent to Detroit to work for the industrial war machine. just when it seems that Gertie’s dream will come true; fate intervenes.
Taking all the children, she follows her husband to Detroit where life could not be more different or difficult. Living in a project scheme for workers at the factories there is no space, no privacy, nothing except grinding poverty.
Life for the family from here onwards is about making adjustments, but Gertie and her son, Reuben, find it the most difficult. When Gertie goes to meet the children’s teachers she is told in no uncertain terms that the problems Reuben has is because of his lack of adjustment, his refusal to fit in. Gertie’s retort to the obnoxious teacher is brilliant…
“but he cain’t help the way he’s made. It’s a lot more trouble to roll out steel-and make it like you want it-than it is biscuit dough.”
But Reuben’s failure to fit in, to find any kind of life for himself brings about one of Gertie’s many upheavals.
Gertie is such a brilliant character. in fact it is hard to think of her as a character in a book, she is so real your heart breaks for her. She is so strong and yet it seems impossible for her not to fall under the weight of her life. But she has children and responsibilities that she does not take lightly. there is a moment in the book when her husband says something to her that leaves you gasping. You wonder how she does not break, how she does not let hate take over her entire being. Gertie’s way of coping is whittling – sculpting from wooden blocks – she has a project that gives her some release from the hardship that she is living; but even that is somewhat taken from her and reduced to money-making.
There are two distinct settings to the book; the first is Kentucky, home for Gertie and her family, and the descriptions of the way people lived during the wartime, waiting for news of relatives fighting abroad is potent. The second setting is Detroit, this setting of total poverty, of the steel factory blazing away in the background, the multitude of characters living and struggling together, gives such depth to this novel. The book is told in local dialect which is totally necessary and quite easy to pick up and run with.
The war is always there in the background; although it is when it is over that most people are affected. When jobs begin to dry up and the animosity between employers and the unions wreaks terrible violence.
There is such devastation and tragedy in this novel, it is not an easy read, but there is also such savage beauty, charm, elegance and grace. I have found it so hard to write this review because I know I can’t do it justice, this book will stay with me for a very long time. It is re-released by Vintage as a lost classic and it quite simply is.