Although BAKER TOWERS sounds like it should be set in an upscale apartment complex or perhaps an exclusive prep school, it actually takes place in a less glamorous, but equally evocative, setting --- the small coal mining town of Bakerton, in western Pennsylvania. The "towers" of the title are actually "two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing, graceful slopes of loose coal and sulfurous dirt … On windy days they glow soft orange, like the embers of a campfire. Scrap coal, spontaneously combusting; a million bits of coal bursting into flame." The Towers always remain in the background of the novel's action, a quiet but powerful reminder of the town's industrial base and, eventually, a reminder of its past prosperity.
Bookmarked by two major wars --- World War II and Vietnam --- BAKER TOWERS follows the fortunes of the Novak children in the wake of their coal miner father's death in the book's opening pages. Born to a Polish father and an Italian mother, the five Novak children seem to bridge the ethnic divides in their small town --- they live in a company house on Polish Hill, but grow up loving their mother's Italian cooking and customs.
Like many young people of their generation, the Novaks dream of escaping their small town. Handsome younger brother Sandy successfully and glibly leaves his industrial roots behind. Older brother Georgie, seduced by a life of wealth and glamour in suburban Philadelphia, escapes, only to regret his choice later in life. Sisters Dorothy and Joyce leave for a while, only to return after the outside world proves disillusioning or even dangerous. Only baby sister Lucy, whose talents and resources suggest that she would leave Bakerton at the first opportunity, truly chooses to stay.
As the five Novaks come to terms --- willingly or grudgingly --- with the hand their fate has dealt them, they find happiness in unexpected places. Their individual dramas and romances play out against the backdrop of a company town that is collapsing under its own weight --- first the company houses go up for sale, then the company store closes, the union goes on strike, and finally a catastrophic event changes the mine and the town forever.
As she did in her award-winning first novel, MRS. KIMBLE, Jennifer Haigh focuses on the trials and tribulations of women's lives, particularly in the years during and after World War II. With masterful plotting and small details, she brings to life the small joys and quiet desperation of the miners' sweethearts, wives and widows. If BAKER TOWERS has a fault, it is that Haigh, in effectively keeping five balls in the air, sometimes loses a grip on one or two --- it's not always clear how younger brother Sandy figures into the story, for example. However, readers will be more than happy to forgive a few dropped balls as they enjoy an ultimately satisfying, compelling story about a way of life that is fast becoming a thing of the past.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011