Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: Baker Towers

Summary: Bakerton is a community of company houses and church festivals, of union squabbles and firemen's parades. Its neighborhoods include Little Italy, Swedetown, and Polish Hill. For its tight-knit citizens -- and the five children of the Novak family -- the 1940s will be a decade of excitement, tragedy, and stunning change. Baker Towers is a family saga and a love story, a hymn to a time and place long gone, to America's industrial past, and to the men and women we now call the Greatest Generation. It is a feat of imagination from an extraordinary voice in American fiction, a writer of enormous power and skill. -- Harper Perennial

I rarely read books more than once... except for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. My opinion is that there are so many books out there that I want to read and have never experienced that I should keep reading new books rather than revisiting old ones. However, I made an exception for BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh . The main reason is that Ms. Haigh has a new collection of short stories coming out shortly called NEWS FROM HEAVEN (1/29/13) which features the same coal-mining town that was the setting for BAKER TOWERS. I thought it might be a good idea to refresh myself with the characters and their stories. And secondly, I remember absolutely adoring BAKER TOWERS (and pretty much anything that Jennifer Haigh writes), and I wanted to see if I still felt the same way.

BAKER TOWERS tells the story of a small coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania and specifically the Novak family. The patriarch of the Novak family dies in a mining accident and the story follows the path of his wife and five children. It is a family saga about the struggles these individuals face, the love they share, and the hope they have for future generations.

It's probably no surprise that I did love BAKER TOWERS as much the second time around. As far as I'm concerned, Ms. Haigh is one of the best authors out there and I treasure each and every word she writes. BAKER TOWERS holds an especially near-and-dear place to my heart because the story takes place in the fictionalized coal-mining town called Bakerton. My paternal grandfather was a coal miner from Western PA (actually just a few miles from where Ms. Haigh grew up), and this story just resonates with me. I have been to these small coal mining towns many times, and I feel as if Ms. Haigh is writing about my relatives.

I have put off writing this review for weeks now because I know I can't express how special this novel is to me. There are few books that truly get in my heart and soul like BAKER TOWERS did and I know that's because it's so personal to me. Ms. Haigh's descriptions of the mines, the miners, and the small town life are exactly as my grandparents have described them to me. There are even small references that made me shake my head with the similarities. For instance, my Polish grandfather married an Italian woman (neither family was thrilled with the match!) and my grandmother quit school at a very early age to work for a Jewish family in Altoona -- just like the characters in the novel. Furthermore, my family still keeps a marriage tradition that if a younger sibling gets married before their older brother or sister, they have to dance in a pig trough at the wedding... just the like characters in the novel. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Ms. Haigh definitely captured the essence of the people, the town and the time period!

But putting aside just how much this book meant to me, I can honestly say that BAKER TOWERS is an exquisitely written novel. If you've ever read a book by Ms. Haigh, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. She is amazing! Her characters are so well-developed and her descriptions are spot-on. But it's more than that. Ms. Haigh somehow creates scenes and exchanges between her characters that seem ordinary, yet the meanings they convey are extraordinary. At the same time, it seems like she accomplishes this in an almost effortless way. It really is a talent and I'm pretty sure that a HUGE effort goes into writing this way!

Naturally, BAKER TOWERS would make an outstanding book club selection. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't able to find a reading guide, but I don't think one is necessary. There are many themes to explore in this novel including love, family dynamics, sacrifice, happiness, marriage, friendship, faith, adultery, and community. I suspect that reading BAKER TOWERS along with the short story collection NEWS FROM HEAVEN would make for a great discussion!

BAKER TOWERS is still one of my very favorite books and I can't wait to read more about Bakerton and its people in NEWS FROM HEAVEN. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Beth F said...

Wow. Okay. I guess I need to read this. :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

This book has been on my radar ever since I read Faith, which rocked my world. She is SUCH a powerful writer. And hey, I didn't know you were Polish!

bermudaonion said...

I know what you mean about the book resonating with you. It's magical when a book connects with a reader like that. I'm really looking forward to this book since I liked Faith so much.

Beth Hoffman said...

I read this last year and really enjoyed it!

Beth Hoffman said...

I read this last year and really enjoyed it!

Carol said...

Sounds like one I ought to read. The blurb caught my eye and then it's set in western PA, an area I'm rather familiar with.

Florinda said...

This was a favorite of my now-defunct book club several years ago (and I picked it for us, BTW). I'll be reading NEWS FROM HEAVEN soon, and I'm glad Jennifer Haigh is taking us back to Bakerton.