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Baker Towers Paperback – December 27, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

Jennifer Haigh's first novel, Mrs. Kimble, was an auspicious debut about three women who marry the same man--consecutively--and their ability to kid themselves about who he is, and, more to the point, who they are. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award, given annually for best first fiction. Haigh has beaten the sophomore slump with another page-turner: Baker Towers. The action, such as it is, takes place in post-World War II Bakerton, a Pennsylvania mining town. "...[T]he town's most famous landmark, known locally as the Towers, two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing... The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things. Haigh lets us know this on page two, setting the backdrop for the family drama of the Novaks.

The story begins with the death of Stanley Novak, wife of Rose and father of Georgie, Dorothy, Joyce, Lucy, and Sandy. This is an Italian-Polish marriage, tolerated, but a break with the town's tradition. The personality, temperament and needs of all five Novaks are made clear to us by their choices--although they are not always clear to the Novaks. Their interaction, with each other and their community, is the stuff of the novel. Life revolves around the mines, the Church, gossip, and sports. Many times throughout the book it seems that Haigh is using a camera rather than a pen, so perfectly does she create a scene for the reader.

Georgie struggles to get away from Bakerton after his military service by going to Philadelphia and marrying the boss's daughter, a decision he lives to regret. Dorothy gets a job in D.C., but never really fits into the scene. A breakdown brings her home for good. Joyce joins the military, is appalled by the way she is treated, and hastens home to care for her ailing mother. Lucy, overweight and unwelcome with the "in" crowd, longs to be Fire Queen, the pinnacle of acceptance in Bakerton. Sandy, handsome and unreliable, leaves for big city life, finds it, and comes home periodically to hide out.

Haigh has captured these people's lives as they play out, more acted upon than acting. None of the Novaks is self-reflective; the girls accept the status quo, the boys escape and find that they have taken themselves with them. A foreshadowing of the changes that will take place is symbolized by a horrific mine explosion at the end of the book. This life that Haigh has so carefully described will soon disappear forever, for good or ill, but she has illuminated its current reality with a sure hand. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The second novel by the author of the award-winning Mrs. Kimble depicts life in a postwar Pennsylvania mining town and continues Haigh's exploration of the hardships of women's lives. In the town of Bakerton, dominated by the towers of the title (made of slowly combusting piles of scrap coal), poor families live in ethnic enclaves of company houses. Italian Rose Novak broke with tradition by marrying a Polish man, but he dies in the book's first chapter, and Rose and her five children struggle through the years that follow. The oldest son, Georgie, returns from WWII and avoids the mining life by marrying the posh, cynical daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia store owner. Rose's daughter Dorothy gets a wartime job in glamorous Washington but breaks down and returns to Bakerton, while capable daughter Joyce, who joins the military just as the war ends, comes home to take care of her ailing mother, resenting Georgie and Sandy, the handsome youngest brother, who escape town. Only Rose and Lucy, the awkward youngest daughter, are content with things as they are. The story climaxes with a disaster at the mine, which affects each of the Novak children. Haigh's prose never soars, but she writes convincingly of family and smalltown relations, as well as of the intractable frustrations of American poverty.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Reprint edition (December 27, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060509422
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060509422
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (177 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,546,705 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jennifer Haigh is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels: FAITH, THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author, and have been published in sixteen languages. Haigh's short stories have appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, One Story, The Saturday Evening Post and many other places, including THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2012. Her latest book, the short story collection NEWS FROM HEAVEN, returns to the coal mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, the setting of her second book, BAKER TOWERS. Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and the 2014 PEN/New England Award, NEWS FROM HEAVEN is now available in paperback.

Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, Jennifer now lives in Boston.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 52 people found the following review helpful By JJ Stark VINE VOICE on February 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book after reading several excellent reviews in various publications. Now that I've finished reading it, I'm going to add my own "excellent review" to the list!

This novel is so well written, there is something for everyone inside. The book follows the lives of a single family living in a small town in Pennsylvania from the 1940's through the 60's. Each chapter singles out one member of the family, telling the story from that character's perspective. We see how each family member grows and matures, and how the ever changing world around them effects each one, and the direction that their life takes.

There's the oldest son, Georgie who goes off to war & then rushes into an unhappy marriage, Dorothy who moves to Washington to escape the "traditional" job of a woman in the dress factory of Bakerton, Joyce who becomes the "parent" to the rest of the family, including her own mother, Sandy the rebellious son, who follows his own path without ever looking back, and the "baby" of the family Lucy, who observes the older members of her family and decides early on which paths in life she definitely does not want to take.

The author has done a wonderful job keeping the readers guessing, and turning the pages to find out what happens next. Nothing is predictable, and there are many "surprises" along the way. I've read some reviews here, where readers have criticized the "jump" from time to time - I didn't find this distracting at all, and actually thought it kept the story moving along at an excellent pace. The story's not dragged out, and time isn't wasted on insignificant events.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Bryce Eddings on January 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book concentrates on the lives of five children of a mine worker in a small Pennsylvania town peopled by descendents of immigrants from Poland, living on Polish Hill, and Italy, who live in Little Italy, at a time when such distinctions mattered. It opens just before the US entered World War II and follows their lives into the Vietnam era. With unblinking eyes, Haigh shows us a world far removed from the myth of the fifties as the idyllic American decade.

Each child, as he and she grows, simultaneously despises and loves the company house in the company town that they all call home. One by one the siblings make their bid for life away from the little town but each is drawn back by obligation, necessity or love. Each struggles to understand their place in the world and to make the best of it. They are pulled between the traditions of their Catholic parents and community and the call of the exciting, growing world of the mid-twentieth century.

Haigh's style is what sets this book apart. With just a few simple words she can paint portraits of the town and its people that are rich with depth. Her characters are more than real as she takes you into their lives and makes you cheer with their successes and ache with their defeats. With love and honesty for her subject, Haigh creates a world that both tests and rewards in its starkness leaving the reader with is a breathtaking look at life - beautiful and terrible at the same time.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By MLPlayfair on July 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh is a good, old-fashioned family saga, the kind you don't seem to find anymore. Even the cover looks like that of an "old" book. The impoverished Novak family and its five children struggle to get by in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania during World War II. As the war changes the world, we see how it changes the town and each member of the family.

The award-winning author has created a definite sense of time and place in this highly readable story. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully: "His old buddy seemed to him a kind of bookmark, holding his place in a life he himself had started but decided not to finish," says the book. And later, "Each disappointment had weakened her; losing hope was like losing blood. She could not survive another failure. Already she was hemorrhaging from regret." Ooh. Powerful language.

I'm happy to report that the women in the book are not just cardboard cutouts; they're complex and very real and reflect the changing roles of women. It isn't a perfect book, and it's sometimes sad, but it makes a very good read.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Antoinette Klein on July 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Novak Family lives on Polish Hill in Bakerton. The city has other ethnic neighborhoods, and all the men work in the coal mines and life revolves around this. The two black piles of mine dirt rise high and symbolize good union jobs that keep food on the table and presents under the Christmas tree. These towers are viewed not so much as an eyesore but as a proof that the town thrives thanks to the mines.

There are five Novak children and as the reader follows each one's life, a picture of a family some might call typical and others might call dysfunctional emerges. The story begins when the father comes home from the Hoot Owl shift and drops dead most unexpectedly. Rose rears her children alone and they each have a story to tell.

The eldest, George, serves in the military and is exposed to what life beyond Bakerton is like. He marries well and forsakes the old neighborhood. His sister Dorothy, a bit unbalanced, works in Washington, D.C. but runs back to the comfort of home to be taken care of by her family. Joyce, the strong and brilliant sister, becomes the family's caregiver, looking after the mother and the other children and putting everyone else's needs above her own. Sandy, the younger son, is blessed with good lucks and unlimited charm. He disappears to exotic places like California and always seems to have plenty of money and a flashy car though he claims to be only a fry cook or some other menial laborer. Lucy, the baby of the family, is the only one who seems content with life in Bakerton, but is the one for whom a better life is possible and she is handed the opportunity to become a professional.

If you enjoy family sagas filled with diverse personalities, love stories, hardships and triumphs, you will revel in this nostalgic look back to what life was like in 1950's and 1960's America.
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