Monday, July 8, 2013

Fiction | Whatever Happened to the Novaks?


Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh is not a book that eases you into the story. You are thrown into the middle of Novak family history and left to sort through who’s who and what’s happening to them. That doesn’t mean it’s confusing, though. This is a family saga that hops from one family member to another, sharing each person’s experiences as the decades pass.

Bakerton is one of Pennsylvania’s many coal mining towns that saw a boom of industrial growth with World War II. It’s a town defined by the coal mines—the company owns the houses; they own the general store. Unless you’re a member of a more elite class, the coal mines define your entire livelihood. And background doesn’t matter. Bakerton is a melting pot of Irish-, Polish-, Italian-Americans.

The story begins with the death of the Novak family patriarch. His widow, Rose, is left raising five very different children—George, the eldest who left Bakerton early for the war and rarely looked back; Dorothy, who returns to Bakerton emotionally fragile after years working as a young woman in DC; Joyce, the strong, militant daughter that takes control of the Novak family after her own stint with the Air Force; Lucy, the youngest daughter, always doted upon and, as a result, struggling with her own sense of self; and Sandy, the youngest son, raised in a world entirely different than older brother Georgie, a free spirit that wheels and deals his way around the country.

Baker Towers follows each of these characters as they find their own places in the world for the next thirty years or so. While they each have their own personal conflicts, much of it is tied to their relationships with both family and town. Bakerton is as much a character in this novel as any member of the Novak family. It follows its own rollercoaster of ups and downs; it directly affects its residents and their lifestyles. It pushes these characters away but the ties are strong and cannot be broken so easily. This story is especially one of Bakerton as a town so strongly defined by industry; its very existence is dependent on its livelihood. So what happens what that is threatened?

This sweeping saga is subtle, as time creeps along, and these contrasting characters reflect their own time and upbringing. It’s a story of town and family when you’re not quite sure which one has a stronger grasp on the characters. If you like this one, I recommend picking up An American Family by Peter Lefcourt for a very similar trip through one family’s history.

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