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The Dollmaker

A book by Harriette Arnow

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"Don't you know there's a war...?"

  • Mar 30, 2009
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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 all that is left in a country at war, the factories emitting a siren call to prosperity. Were it not for her husband, Gertie would never leave her home, but she is a humble woman, guided by her Bible and righteousness to keep the family together. Against her children's complaints, Gertie gives up her dream for a home of her own and moves her brood to wartime Detroit.

The cacophony and dirt of the city are a terrible shock to Gertie and her children, but the living conditions are outrageous to those used to country life, row houses connected wall to wall, the loud voices of neighbors booming in argument, contentious men needing sleep before the next shift, wives unhappy with their husband's drunkenness, hordes of children gathering to play in the dusty courtyard, every semblance of the country removed in this smoke-filled, filthy place, where shift change is announced by the bleat of a horn and the wail of the train wakes the night. Her children settled in school, Gertie makes her peace with this new environment, keeping the younger ones close by, comforted by the wood carving she does to calm her hands and pass the time.

The Dollmaker is a powerful social indictment of the consequences of industrialization, spoken in the idiomatic dialect of an uneducated country woman faced with the disintegration of all that she holds dear. The formidable Gertie will know the loss of her husband's pride and self-respect, the creeping fear of joblessness, the private nightmare of assimilation into an indifferent city and the small comfort of the wood she works with her hands. Eventually, even comfort will be forfeit, given a loss that brings Gertie to her knees, prayers scant comfort in her extremity. As multifaceted as the figures she carves, Gertie Nevels is the backbone of her family, and a source of strength to her friends, driven to survive this new, soulless world. Luan Gaines.
The Dollmaker

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March 30, 2009
I first read this book in 1963 and was in tears by the time I finished it. Jane Fonda portrayed the lead character in a film of the same name, but the film didn't have the rich texture of the novel or protray the dehumanizing poverty of the families that flooded the cities in search of work.
More The Dollmaker reviews
review by . July 22, 2013
    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 …
About the reviewer
Luan Gaines ()
Ranked #109
An artist/writer, I have traveled the world, walked on the moon and learned the complicated language of humanity, the enormity of the universe... all through the written word. My first passport was a … more
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About this book


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.

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ISBN-10: 0380009471
ISBN-13: 978-0380009473
Author: Harriette Arnow
Publisher: Avon (August 1, 1976)

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