It took me a couple of days after the announcement of Detroit's very close brush with complete bankruptcy to remember Harriette Arnow's novel about life in Motor City during the Second World War, The Dollmaker.
First published in 1954, the story centers on Gertie, a strong, capable woman who moves with her husband and children to Detroit so he can work in the war industry. As a gripping story of what it was like to move from Appalachia to a big, crowded city, the book has few peers. It opens with Gertie, whose hobby is whittling dolls, doing a tracheotomy on her little son who is choking with diptheria. From then on, the reader is hooked.
I first read the book after Joyce Carol Oates wrote about it in The New York Times in 1971. It had more or less been forgotten, even though it had been a big best seller when it was first published. Whe I read it, I found it engrossing. The image of the steel mill Arnow paints has stayed with me ever since.
Oates's essay apparently is now an afterword for an edition that is still in print: a paperback edition was published in 2009. To judge from the number of teacher's guides on-line, the novel must also appear on reading lists for a number of high school and junior college English classes.
That should not scare you away, though. Read it to get a feel for what it was like to work in the factories of Detroit in the city's heyday, to understand what ordinary folk were up against, and to appreciate the strength of the women who had to stand by their menfolk.
Gertie Nevels is a woman meant to live out her days on the land in Kentucky, all her dreams for her children tied up in the predictability of hard work, where abject poverty is ameliorated by fresh vegetables and harvested crops, self-sufficiency the rule the family lives by. But industrialization has hit the country, jobs scarce, the cities calling workers with the promise of a weekly paycheck, food on the table and a company roof over their heads. For men like Clovis Nevels, this opportunity is … more
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
Strong-willed, self-reliant Gertie Nevel's peaceful life in the Kentucky hills was devastated by the brutal winds of change. Uprooted form their backwoods home, she and her family were thrust into the confusion and chaos of wartime Detroit. And in a pitiless world of unendurable poverty, Gertie would battle fiercely and relentlessly to protect those things she held most precious--her children, her heritage...and her triumphant ability to create beauty in the suffocating shadow of ugliness and despair.