News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories
Jennifer Haigh (Facebook)
Harper (January 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 0060889640 / 9780060889647)
Fiction (linked short stories), 256 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour
Opening lines (from the first story, “Beast and Bird”):
“Every Sunday morning, at seven o’clock promptly, the two Polish girls crossed the park and walked fifty blocks downtown to church. Early morning: the avenue wide as a farmer’s field, the sunlight tempered with frost. The girls were bare-legged, in ankle socks and long coats, their long blond hair dark at the ends from their morning ablutions. The younger, Annie Lubicki, was also the prettier. She had just turned sixteen.
“Knowing less, Annie listened more than she spoke. Frances Zroka was three years older, a city girl from Passaic, New Jersey.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
When her iconic novel Baker Towers was published in 2005, it was hailed as a modern classic—”compassionate and powerful…a song of praise for a too-little-praised part of America, for the working families whose toils and constancy have done so much to make the country great” (Chicago Tribune). Its young author, Jennifer Haigh, was “an expert natural storyteller with an acute sense of her characters’ humanity” (New York Times).
Now, in this collection of interconnected short stories, Jennifer Haigh returns to the vividly imagined world of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town rocked by decades of painful transition. From its heyday during two world wars through its slow decline, Bakerton is a town that refuses to give up gracefully, binding—sometimes cruelly—succeeding generations to the place that made them. A young woman glimpses a world both strange and familiar when she becomes a live-in maid for a Jewish family in New York City. A long-absent brother makes a sudden and tragic homecoming. A solitary middle-aged woman tastes unexpected love when a young man returns to town. With a revolving cast of characters—many familiar to fans of Baker Towers—these stories explore how our roots, the families and places in which we are raised, shape the people we eventually become.
Comments: My in-person book club faded into oblivion several years ago, but one of my personal triumphs during its lifetime was selecting Jennifer Haigh’s second novel, Baker Towers, as one of our reads. It was a fine blend of immigrant-family saga, 20th-century historical fiction, and place-as-character novel that introduced me to a new favorite author and has stuck with me ever since. When I was offered the opportunity to revisit Bakerton, Pennsylvania in Haigh’s new short-story collection, News From Heaven, I eagerly accepted. Although I’ve said before that I’m not generally a short-story fan, the linked-short-story format seems to work for me.
Haigh connects the “Bakerton Stories” in News From Heaven not only to each other, but also to Baker Towers, although I don’t think there’s a recommended order in which to read the books–the references aren’t plot-specific. Several stories revisit members of Baker Towers’ Novak family, both filling in blanks from the earlier stories and exploring what’s become of those people since Haigh last wrote about them. The Novaks also make cameo appearances in stories that center on other Bakerton families–the Lubickis, Wojicks, and descendants of the founding Bakers themselves–and I found it fascinating to explore the relationships among them, viewed through an assortment of perspectives.
The stories in News From Heaven make fewer overt references to Catholicism and immigrant/first-generation culture than Baker Towers does, but those elements still color life in a town whose ups and downs have always gone hand-in-hand with the fortunes of the coal-mining business that built it. Most of the characters here are children and grandchildren of the Polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants who settled the town and labored in the mines for decades. But the as mines were emptied out and closed down, Bakerton became an aging company town with a questionable future, and its population, in Haigh’s stories, reflects the social and economic changes of the last few decades.
The slices of life in Jennifer Haigh’s Bakerton Stories are portrayed with empathy and emotional authenticity, and I hope she has even more of them to tell.