Today is day 4 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout the
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.
Today’s D word: The Dollmaker.
What I read
No one has agreed on the Great American Novel yet, although many have set out to write it. I think The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter are certainly contenders. Maybe Huck Finn. For me, though, Harriette Arnow’s The Doll Maker can’t be topped. It’s not a story, though, of our beginnings as a nation–but a story of how we came to be the productive super power that we
are once were.
Gertie Nevels is a power to be reckoned with. From the opening pages she’s turned down again and again after asking for help getting her gravely ill little boy to the doctor. Not a Good Samaritan to be found, she finally performs a makeshift tracheotomy in order to save his life. In Appalachia you make do. She’s also been secretly saving out money for years to buy her own farm by selling eggs and whittling dolls to sell. Wen her parents offer her a windfall (relatively speaking), she’s set to make an offer on a nearby farm.
Clovis Nevels, Gertie’s husband, has been called to Detroit to take his army exam. And while he’s turned down for the army, he does take a job in a Detroit factory. Because her mother thinks a woman’s place is with her husband, Gertie and her children set off to join him. Life in Detroit is a far cry from their simple home in the mountains. Crowded cheek-to-jowl in company housing, buying all their food from the grocery, unaware of the dangers of buying on credit, the family’s life becomes more tenuous than their hard-scratched life back home.
Through it all, Gertie holds on to a block of cherry wood brought from home, carefully planning her most exquisite carving, her life’s work. But life gets in the way and Gertie nearly loses everything. The novel poignantly captures the move from rural life to the city–The Great Migration– where we see the cruelty of rural poverty set against the cruelty of urban poverty. Seventy-five years after the novel takes place, most Americans live in towns and cites. And, like Gertie, maybe we’ve lost as much as we’ve gained.
What I lived
It was the early 80s and Jane Fonda’s TV movie The Doll Maker was coming out. (Jane Fonda was big with On Golden Pond and her workout video.) Book clubs really weren’t a thing, yet, but one of the women in the babysitting coop wanted to read The Dollmaker and talk about it before the movie. Our discussion centered, I think, on the novel’s end which is powerfully symbolic.
My own world hadn’t yet crashed down around me–I was a married, stay-at-home mom with two little boys to care for. I can still see that pretty little house. An ordinary late-sixties colonial in most ways, the floors were refinished dark and shiny walnut, and the living room had a gorgeous Vermont Castings wood stove. The light in the house was clear and bright no matter the time of day. I had refinished a mission oak rocker I got for a song at a garage sale. The brass lamp was perfect.
Then, like Gertie I said, “All my life I’ve been doin’ what I was told. You’ve gone your own way always … and I’ve had to go too … don’t you tell me to do it your way. I ain’t doin’ it no more.” I cried when I left that house.
Seven years later I had a mortgage of my own. It is a near match for that beloved house, only a bit smaller. Like Gertie, I found my way home again.