BN.com Gift Guide

Overview

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 ...

See more details below
Baker Towers

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$8.99
BN.com price

Overview

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.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Nancy Reisman
Baker Towers is, finally, a rich portrait of place, its meaning not in the towers themselves but in the community that created them, and Haigh's readers will empathize with Lucy Novak's wish to remain.
— The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
Like Richard Russo's Empire Falls, Bakerton is a place in transition. "The town wore away like a bar of soap," Ms. Haigh writes. "Each year, smaller and less distinct, the letters of its name fading. The thing it had been became harder to discern." But this book has the heart to end, credibly and unsentimentally, on a note of rebirth. And Bakerton is utterly, entrancingly alive on the page even as it is supposed to be fading away.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The second novel by the author of the award-winning Mrs. Kimble depicts life in a postwar Pennsylvania mining town and continues Haigh's exploration of the hardships of women's lives. In the town of Bakerton, dominated by the towers of the title (made of slowly combusting piles of scrap coal), poor families live in ethnic enclaves of company houses. Italian Rose Novak broke with tradition by marrying a Polish man, but he dies in the book's first chapter, and Rose and her five children struggle through the years that follow. The oldest son, Georgie, returns from WWII and avoids the mining life by marrying the posh, cynical daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia store owner. Rose's daughter Dorothy gets a wartime job in glamorous Washington but breaks down and returns to Bakerton, while capable daughter Joyce, who joins the military just as the war ends, comes home to take care of her ailing mother, resenting Georgie and Sandy, the handsome youngest brother, who escape town. Only Rose and Lucy, the awkward youngest daughter, are content with things as they are. The story climaxes with a disaster at the mine, which affects each of the Novak children. Haigh's prose never soars, but she writes convincingly of family and smalltown relations, as well as of the intractable frustrations of American poverty. Agent, Dorian Karchmar. (Jan. 4) Forecast: Strong publisher support, a 25-city author tour and Haigh's solid storytelling could make this a big seller. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Baker towers, the piles of slag dumped near the railroad siding for the Baker Coal Mines, are the reason that pre-World War II Bakerton, PA, exists; the company is the town, and the town is the company. The Novak family lives in a company house in the town's Polish section, shops at the company store, goes to the company hospital, and lives by the company time clock. When Stanley Novak drops dead from a massive heart attack, he leaves behind a wife and five children who must struggle to survive. During the war, employment is not too difficult to find-even for the girls-but finding a place in the world is a little more challenging. The children leave home and return. The miners go on strike. The eldest daughter marries the high school principal. The second-oldest daughter shocks her family by consorting with a divorced Italian. A catastrophic explosion eventually closes down the mines. The town, however, remains, and life continues as the world moves on. In her second novel (after Mrs. Kimble), PEN/Hemingway Award winner Haigh uses evocative prose to create a picture of a company town-and of the human condition-that is both accurate and moving. Recommended.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The eponymous towers of the title are the still-smoldering slag heaps from the coal mines of Bakerton, PA. That the town was named after the mines rather than the other way around sets them firmly at the center of the lives of the inhabitants. The novel focuses on five siblings following the death of their father in 1944, and progresses through the late '60s. Of Italian and Polish extraction, they all have Bakerton firmly rooted in their psyches even as they attempt to move away. Georgie leaves the army and marries, uncomfortably, into Philadelphia society, Dorothy attempts to fit into wartime D.C., and Joyce goes into the military too late for wartime responsibility. Meanwhile, spoiled and handsome Sandy moves away to find his fortune and comes back to hide from some shady associates, and baby Lucy finishes college yet follows her heart back to Bakerton. Each time frame is clearly limned, from the Washington of white gloves and fake silk stockings to the falling away of old loyalties and habits in the '60s. Eventually, the mines close with a frightening cave-in, but not before readers have become achingly aware of the lives of the citizens of the town. Teens will identify with the need to escape from one's origins, but they may also realize how unlikely real escape is. There is as much to admire in the lives of the townspeople as there is to escape. The place and times of the towers are vividly drawn, and young adults may see the universality in their specifics.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An elegant, elegiac multigenerational saga about a small coal-mining community in western Pennsylvania that shows how talented she really is. Fast on the heels of her PEN/Hemingway-winning if stagy first novel (Mrs. Kimble, 2003), Haigh turns a careful, loving eye on the sociology of the town of Bakerton, resting her focus most intently on the Poles and Italians who work together but live in their own neighborhoods. At the heart of the story are the five children of Stanley Novak, a Polish miner, and his Italian wife Rose. When Stanley dies of a heart attack in 1944, oldest son George is away in the Pacific. Eighteen-year-old Dorothy, diffident and plain, takes a secretarial position in Washington, DC, after losing her factory job. High-schooler Joyce shows unusual academic gifts. Eight-year-old Sandy is a charmer. And Lucy is a baby. Over the years, the siblings, along with a host of friends and neighbors, grow and evolve, sometimes as expected, sometimes not. George, eager to escape the mines, marries into a wealthy Philadelphia family (the one jarring note here being his spoiled wife's lack of redeeming characteristics) and erases his connection with home. Dorothy, broken by her experience in the outside world, returns to Bakerton, where she's redeemed by a love affair with a divorced man. Joyce attempts to escape into the Air Force but comes back home out of a sense of duty to her ailing mother, then slowly builds a rewarding life for herself. Sandy becomes a drifter. Well-educated, thanks to Joyce, Lucy chooses life in Bakerton. Their lives unfold in episodes that tie the individual to the community, and the lines of connection between characters-even the most minor-weave anintricate social tapestry. By the time the mines close for good, every thread connects. Almost mythic in its ambition, somewhere between Oates and Updike country, and thoroughly satisfying. Agent: Dorian Karchmar/Lowenstein-Yost Associates
Harlan Coben
“Terrific.”
Patriot Ledger (Quincy
“A work that is quickly boosting [Haigh’s] ascension to the vanguard of 21st century American novelists.”
Washington Post Book World
“Jennifer Haigh’s ambitious, elegiac second novel, Baker Towers [is]… a rich portrait of place.”
Daily News
“A good old-fashioned read... the author deftly evokes the particulars of a time and place.”
New York Times
“The living, breathing organism that is Haigh’s captivating book… [is an] effortlessly haunting story… [Haigh is] an expert natural storyteller.”
The Times (London)
“Haigh’s writing is rich and mellifluous, and her story certainly has an old-fashioned charm and dignity to it.”
Entertainment Weekly
“In clean, authoritative prose, Haigh uncannily injects new life into an era too often entombed by nostalgia.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061738661
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/17/2009
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 108,679
  • File size: 988 KB

Meet the Author

Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short story collection News From Heaven and four critically acclaimed novels:  Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for work by a New England writer. Her short fiction has been published widely, in The Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories 2012, and many other publications. She lives in the Boston area. 

Biography

The daughter of a librarian and a high school English teacher, Jennifer Haigh was raised with her older brother in the coal-mining town of Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. Although she began writing as a student at Dickinson College, her undergraduate degree was in French. After college, she moved to France on a Fulbright Scholarship, returning to the U.S. in 1991.

Haigh spent most of the decade working in publishing, first for Rodale Press in Pennsylvania, then for Self magazine in New York City. It was not until her 30th birthday that she was bitten by the writing bug. She moved to Baltimore (where it was cheaper to live), supported herself as a yoga instructor, and began to publish short stories in various literary magazines. She was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and enrolled in their two-year M.F.A. program. While she was at Iowa, she completed the manuscript for her first novel, Mrs. Kimble. She also caught the attention of a literary agent scouting the grad school for new talent and was signed to a two-book contract. Haigh was astonished at how quickly everything came together.

Mrs. Kimble became a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2003. Readers and critics alike were bowled over by this accomplished portrait of a "serial marrier" and the three wives whose lives he ruins. The Washington Post raved, "It's a clever premise, backed up by three remarkably well-limned Mrs. Kimbles, each of whom comes tantalizingly alive thanks to the author's considerable gift for conjuring up a character with the tiniest of details." The novel went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award for Outstanding First Fiction.

Skeptics who wondered if Haigh's success had been mere beginner's luck were set straight when Baker Towers appeared in 2005. A multigenerational saga set in a Pennsylvania coal-mining community in the years following WWII, the novel netted Haigh the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. (Haigh lives in Massachusetts.) The New York Times called it "captivating," and Kirkus Reviews described it as "[a]lmost mythic in its ambition, somewhere between Oates and Updike country, and thoroughly satisfying." High praise indeed for a sophomore effort.

In fact, Haigh continues to produce dazzling literary fiction in both its short and long forms, much of it centered on the interwoven lives of families. When asked why she returns so often to this theme, she answers, " In fact, every story is a family story: we all come from somewhere, and it's impossible to write well-developed characters without giving a great deal of thought to their childhood environments, their early experiences, and whose genetic material they're carrying around."

Good To Know

In our interview with Haigh, she shared some fun facts about herself:

"All my life I've fantasized about being invisible. I love the idea of watching people when they don't know they're being observed. Novelists get to do that all the time!"

"When I was a child, I told my mother I wanted to grow up to be a genie, a gas station attendant, or a writer. I hope I made the right choice."

Read More Show Less
    1. Hometown:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 16, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Barnesboro, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      B.A., Dickinson College, 1990; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 2002

Read an Excerpt

FIRST CHAPTER

Softly the snow falls. In the blue morning light a train winds through the hills. The engine pulls a passenger car, brightly lit. Then a dozen blind coal cars, rumbling dark.
Six mornings a week the train runs westward from Altoona to Pittsburgh, a distance of a hundred miles. The route is indirect, tortuous; the earth is buckled, swollen with what lies beneath. Here and there, the lights of a town: rows of company houses, narrow and square; a main street of commercial buildings, quickly and cheaply built. Brakes screech; the train huffs to a stop. Cars are added. In the passenger compartment, a soldier on furlough clasps his duffel bag, shivers and waits. The whistle blows. Wheezing, the engine leaves the station, slowed by the extra tons of coal.
The train crosses an iron bridge, the black water of the Susquehanna. Lights cluster in the next valley. The town, Bakerton, is already awake. Coal cars thunder down the mountain. The valley is filled with sound.
The valley is deep and sharply featured. Church steeples and mine tipples grow inside it like crystals. At bottom is the town's most famous landmark, known locally as the Towers, two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing, graceful slopes of loose coal and sulfurous dirt. The Towers give off an odor like struck matches. 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.
Bakerton is Saxon County's boomtown. Like the Towers, it is alive with coal. A life that started in the 1880s, when two English brothers, Chester and Elias Baker, broke ground on Baker One. Attracted by handbills, immigrants came: English and Irish, then Italians and Hungarians; then Poles and Slovaks and Ukrainians and Croats, the "Slavish," as they were collectively known. With each new wave the town shifted to make room. Another church was constructed. A new cluster of company houses appeared at the edge of town. The work-mine work-was backbreaking, dangerous and bleak; but at Baker Brothers the union was tolerated. By the standards of the time the pay was generous, the housing affordable and clean.
The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things.
Chester Baker was the town's first mayor. During his term Bakerton acquired the first streetcar line in the county, the first public water supply. Its electric street lamps were purchased from Baker's own pocket. Figure the cost of maintaining them for fifty years, he wrote to the town bosses, and I will pay you the sum in advance. After twenty years Baker ceded his office, but the bosses continued to meet at his house, a rambling yellow-brick mansion on Indian Hill. A hospital was built, the construction crew paid from a fund Baker had established. He wouldn't let the building be named for him. At his direction, it was called Miners' Hospital.
The hospital was constructed in brick; so were the stores, the dress factory, the churches, the grammar school. After the Commercial Hotel burned to the ground in 1909, an ordinance was passed, urging merchants to "make every effort to fabricate their establishments of brick." To a traveler arriving on the morning train-by now an expert on Pennsylvania coal towns-the hat shop and dry-goods store, the pharmacy and mercantile, seem built to last. Their brick facades suggest order, prosperity, permanence.


ON THE SEVENTEENTH of January 1944, a motorcar idled at the railroad crossing, waiting for the train to pass. In the passenger seat was an elderly undertaker of Sicilian descent, named Antonio Bernardi. At the wheel was his great-nephew Gennaro, a handsome, curly-haired youth known in the pool halls as Jerry. Between them sat a blond-haired boy of eight. The car, a black Packard, had been waxed that morning. The old man peered anxiously through the windshield, at the snowflakes melting on the hood.
"These Slavish," he said, as if only a Pole would drop dead in the middle of winter and expect to be buried in a snowstorm.
The train passed, whistle blowing. The Packard crossed the tracks and climbed a steep road lined with company houses, a part of town known as Polish Hill. The road was loose and rocky; the coarse stones, called red dog, came from bony piles on the outskirts of town. Black smoke rose from the chimneys; in the backyards were outhouses, coal heaps, clotheslines stretched between posts. Here and there, miners' overalls hung out to dry, frozen stiff in the January wind.
"These Slavish," Bernardi said again. "They live like animali." At one time, his own brothers had lived in company houses, but the family had improved itself. His nephews owned property, houses filled with modern comforts: telephones and flush toilets, gas stoves and carpeted floors.
"Papa," said Jerry, glancing at the boy; but the child seemed not to hear. He stared out the window wide-eyed, having never ridden in a car before. His name was Sandy Novak; he'd come knocking at Bernardi's back door an hour before-breathless, his nose dripping. His mother had sent him running all the way from Polish Hill, to tell Bernardi to come and get his father.
The car climbed the slope, engine racing. Briefly the tires slid on the ice. At the top of the hill Jerry braked.
"Well?" said the old man to the boy. "Where do you live?"
"Back there," said Sandy Novak. "We passed it."
Bernardi exhaled loudly. "Cristo. Now we got to turn around."
Jerry turned the car in the middle of the road.
"Pay attention this time," Bernardi told the boy. "We don't got all day." In fact he'd buried nobody that week, but he believed in staying available. Past opportunities-fires, rockfalls, the number five collapse-had arisen without warning. Somewhere in Bakerton a miner was dying. Only Bernardi could deliver him to God.
The Bernardis handled funerals at the five Catholic churches in town. A man named Hiram Stoner had a similar arrangement with the Protestants. When Bernardi's black Packard was spotted, the town knew a Catholic had died; Stoner's Ford meant a dead Episcopalian, Lutheran or Methodist. For years Bernardi had transported his customers in a wagon pulled by two horses. During the flu of '18 he'd moved three bodies at a time. Recently, conceding to modernity, he'd bought the Packard; now, when a Catholic died, a Bernardi nephew would be called upon to drive. Jerry was the last remaining; the others had been sent to England and northern Africa. The old man worried that Jerry, too, would be drafted. Then he'd have no one left to drive the hearse.
"There it is," the boy said, pointing. "That's my house."
Jerry slowed. The house was mean and narrow like the others, but a front porch had been added, painted green and white. One window, draped with lace curtains, held a porcelain statue of the Madonna. In the other window hung a single blue star.
"Who's the soldier?" said Jerry.
"My brother Georgie," said Sandy, then added what his father always said. "He's in the South Pacific."
They climbed the porch stairs, stamping snow from their shoes. A woman opened the door. Her dark hair was loose, her mouth full. A baby slept against her shoulder. She was beautiful, but not young-at least forty, if Bernardi had to guess. He was like a timberman who could guess the age of a tree before counting the rings inside. He had rarely been wrong.
She let them inside. Her eyelids were puffy, her eyes rimmed with red. She inhaled sharply, a moist, slurry sound.
Bernardi offered his hand. He'd expected the usual Slavish type: pale and round-faced, a long braid wrapped around her head so that she resembled a fancy pastry. This one was dark-eyed, olive-skinned. He glanced down at her bare feet. Italian, he realized with a shock. His mother and sisters had never worn shoes in the house.
"My dear lady," he said. "My condolences for your loss."
"Come in." She had an ample figure, heavy in the bosom and hip. The type Bernardi-an old bachelor, a window-shopper who'd looked but had never bought-had always liked.
She led them through a tidy parlor-polished pine floor, a braided rug at the center. A delicious aroma came from the kitchen. Not the usual Slavish smell, the sour stink of cooked cabbage.
"This way," said the widow. "He's in the cellar."
They descended a narrow staircase-the widow first, then Jerry and Bernardi. The dank basement smelled of soap, onions and coal. The widow switched on the light, a single bare bulb in the ceiling. A man lay on the cement floor-fair-haired, with a handlebar mustache. A silver medal on a chain around his neck: Saint Anne, protectress of miners. His hair was wet, his eyes already closed.
"He just come home from the mines," said the widow, her voice breaking. "He was washing up. I wonder how come he take so long."
Bernardi knelt on the cold floor. The man was tall and broad-shouldered. His shirt was damp; the color had already left his face. Bernardi touched his throat, feeling for a pulse.
"It's no point," said the woman. "The priest already come."
Bernardi grasped the man's legs, leaving Jerry the heavier top half. Together they hefted the body up the stairs. Bernardi was sixty-four that spring, but his work had kept him strong. He guessed the man weighed two hundred pounds, heavy even for a Slavish.
They carried the body out the front door and laid it in the rear of the car. The boy watched from the porch. A moment later the widow appeared, still holding the baby. She had put on shoes. She handed Bernardi a dark suit on a hanger.
"He wore it when we got married," she said. "I hope it still fits." Bernardi took the suit. "We'll bring him back tonight. How about you get a couple neighbors to help us? He'll be heavier with the casket."
The widow nodded. In her arms the baby stirred. Bernardi smiled stiffly. He found infants tedious; he preferred them silent and unconscious, like this one. "A little angel," he said. "What's her name?"
 "Lucy." The widow stared over his shoulder at the car. "Dio mio. I can't believe it."
"Iddio la benedica."
They stood there a moment, their heads bowed. Gently Bernardi patted her shoulder. He was an old man; by his own count he'd buried more than a thousand bodies; he had glimpsed the darkest truths, the final secrets. Still, life held surprises. Here was a thing he had never witnessed, an Italian wife on Polish Hill.

 

THAT MORNING, the feast of Saint Anthony, Rose Novak had gone to church. For years the daily mass had been poorly attended, but now the churches were crowded with women. The choir, heavy on sopranos, had doubled in size. Wives stood in line to light a candle; mothers knelt at the communion rail in silent prayer. Since her son Georgie was drafted Rose had scarcely missed a mass. Each morning her eldest daughter, Dorothy, cooked the family breakfast, minded the baby, and woke Sandy and Joyce for school.
Rose glanced at her watch; again the old priest had overslept. She reached into her pocket for her rosary. Good morning, Georgie, she thought, crossing herself. Buongiorno, bello. In the past year, the form of her prayers had changed: instead of asking God for His protection, she now prayed directly to her son. This did not strike her as blasphemous. If God could hear her prayers, it was just as easy to imagine that Georgie heard them, too. He seemed as far away as God; her husband had shown her the islands on the globe. She imagined Georgie's submarine smaller than a pinprick, an aquatic worm in the fathomless blue.
Stanley had wanted him to enlist. "We owe it to America," he said, as if throwing Georgie's life away would make them all more American. Stanley had fought in the last war and returned with all his limbs. He'd forgotten the others-his cousins, Rose's older brother-who hadn't been so lucky.
Rose had resisted-quietly at first, then loudly, without restraint. Georgie was a serious young man, a musician. He'd taught himself the clarinet and saxophone; since the age of five he'd played the violin. Besides that, he was delicate: as a child he'd had pneumonia, and later diphtheria. Both times he had nearly died. If America wanted his precious life, then America would have to call him. Rose would not let Stanley hand him over on a plate.
For a time she had her way. Georgie graduated high school and went to work at Baker One. He blew his saxophone in a dance band that played the VFW dances Friday nights. When the draft notice came, Stanley had seemed almost glad. Rose called him a brute, a braggart-willing to risk Georgie's life so he'd have something to boast about in the beer gardens. At the time she believed it. The next morning she found him gathering eggs in the henhouse, weeping like a baby.
He was strict with the children, with Georgie especially. Only English was to be spoken at home; when Rose lapsed into Italian with her mother or sisters, Stanley glared at her with silent scorn. Yet late at night, once the children were in bed, he tuned the radio to a Polish station from Pittsburgh and listened until it was time for work.
She left the warmth of the church and walked home through a stiff wind, wisps of snow swirling around her ankles, hovering above the sidewalk like steam or spirits. The sky had begun to lighten; the frozen ground was still bare. Good for the miners, loading the night's coal onto railroad cars; good for the children, who walked two miles each way to school.
At Polish Hill the sidewalk ended. She continued along the rocky path, hugging her coat around her, a fierce wind at her back. Ahead, a group of miners trudged up the hill with their empty dinner buckets, cupping cigarettes in their grimy hands. They joked loudly in Polish and English: deep voices, phlegmy laughter. Like Stanley they'd worked Hoot Owl, midnight to eight; since the war had started the mines never stopped. Rose picked out her neighbor Andy Yurkovich, the bad-tempered father of two-year-old twins. He had a young Hungarian wife; by noon her nerves would be shattered, trying to keep the babies quiet so Andy could sleep.
Rose climbed the stairs to the porch. The house was warm inside; someone had stoked the furnace. She left her shoes at the door. Dorothy sat at the kitchen table chewing her fingernails. The baby sat calmly in her lap, mouthing a saltine cracker.
"Sorry I'm late. That Polish priest, he need an alarm clock." Rose reached for the baby. "Did she behave herself?" she asked in Italian.
"She was an angel," Dorothy answered in English. "Daddy's home," she added in a whisper. She reached for her boots and glanced at the mirror that hung beside the door. Her hair looked flattened on one side. An odd rash had appeared on her cheek. She would be nineteen that spring.
"Put on some lipstick," Rose suggested.
"No time," Dorothy called over her shoulder.
In the distance the factory whistle blew. Through the kitchen window Rose watched Dorothy hurry down the hill, the hem of her dress peeking beneath her coat. People said they looked alike, and their features-the dark eyes, the full mouth-were indeed similar. In her high school graduation photo, taken the previous spring, Dorothy was as stunning as any movie actress. In actual life she was less attractive. Tall and round-shouldered, with no bosom to speak of; no matter how Rose hemmed them, Dorothy's skirts dipped an inch lower on the left side. Help existed: corsets, cosmetics, the innocent adornments most girls discovered at puberty and used faithfully until death. Dorothy either didn't know about them or didn't care. She still hadn't mastered the art of setting her hair, a skill other girls seemed to possess intuitively.
She sewed sleeves at the Bakerton Dress Company, a low brick building at the other end of town. Each morning Rose watched the neighborhood women tramp there like a civilian army. A few even wore trousers, their hair tied back with kerchiefs. What precisely they did inside the factory, Rose understood only vaguely. The noise was deafening, Dorothy said; the floor manager made her nervous, watching her every minute. After seven months she still hadn't made production. Rose worried, said nothing. For an unmarried woman, the factory was the only employer in town. If Dorothy were fired she'd be forced to leave, take the train to New York City and find work as a housemaid or cook. Several girls from the neighborhood had done this-quit school at fourteen to become live-in maids for wealthy Jews. The Jews owned stores and drove cars; they needed Polish-speaking maids to wash their many sets of dishes. A few Bakerton girls had even settled there, found city husbands; but for Dorothy this seemed unlikely. Her Polish was sketchy, thanks to Stanley's rules. And she was terrified of men. At church, in the street, she would not meet their eyes.
Rose laid the baby down. Every morning she carried the heavy cradle downstairs to the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. From upstairs came the sounds of an argument, the younger children getting ready for school.
She went into the parlor and stood at the foot of the stairs. "Joyce!" she called. "Sandy!"
Her younger daughter appeared on the stairs, dressed in a skirt and blouse.
"Where's your brother?"
"He isn't ready." Joyce ran a hand through her fine hair, blond like her father's; she'd inherited the color but not the abundance. "I woke him once but he went back to sleep."
"Sandy!" Rose called.
He came rumbling down the stairs: shirt unbuttoned, socks in hand, hair sticking in all directions.
"See?" Joyce demanded. She was six years older, a sophomore in high school. "I have a test first period. I can't wait around all day."
Sandy sat heavily on the steps and turned his attention to his socks. "I'm not a baby," he grumbled. "I can walk to school by myself." He was a good-humored child, not prone to sulking, but he would not take criticism from Joyce. His whole life she had mothered him, praised him, flirted with him. Her scorn was intolerable.
Joyce swiped at his hair, a stubborn cowlick that refused to lie flat. "Well, you're not going anywhere looking like that."
He shrugged her hand away.
"Suit yourself," she said, reddening. "Go to school looking like a bum. Makes no difference to me."
"You go ahead," Rose told Joyce. "I take him." He couldn't be trusted to walk alone. The last time she'd let him he'd arrived an hour late, having stopped to play with a stray dog.
He followed her into the kitchen. Of all her children he was the most beautiful, with the same pale blue eyes as his father. He had come into the world with a full head of hair, a silvery halo of blond. They'd named him Alexander, for his grandfather; it was Joyce who shortened the name to Sandy. As a toddler, she'd been desperately attached to a doll she'd named after herself; after her brother was born she transferred her affections to Sandy. "My baby!" she'd cry, outraged, when Rose bathed or nursed him. In her mind, Sandy was hers entirely.
Rose scooped the last of the oatmeal into a bowl and poured the boy a cup of coffee. Each morning she made a huge potful, mixed in sugar and cream so that the whole family drank it the same way. In the distance the fire whistle blew, a low whine that rose in pitch, then welled up out of the valley like a mechanical scream.
"What is it?" Sandy asked. "What happened?"
"I don't know." Rose stared out the window at the number three tipple rising in the distance. She scanned the horizon for smoke. The whistle could mean any number of disasters: a cave-in, an underground fire. At least once a year a miner was killed in an explosion or injured in a rockfall. Just that summer, a neighbor had lost a leg when an underground roof collapsed. She crossed herself, grateful for the noise in the basement, her husband safe at home. This time at least, he had escaped.
She filled a heavy iron pot with water and placed it on the stove. A basket of laundry sat in the corner, but the dirty linens would have to wait; she always washed Stanley's miners first. Over the years she'd developed a system. First she took the coveralls outdoors and shook out the loose dirt; then she rinsed them in cold water in the basement sink. When the water ran clean, she scrubbed the coveralls on a washboard with Octagon soap, working in the lather with a stiff brush. Then she carried the clothes upstairs and boiled them on the stove. The process took half an hour, including soak time, and she hadn't yet started. She was keeping the stove free for Stanley's breakfast.
"Finish your cereal," she told Sandy. "I go see about your father."
She found him lying on the floor, his face half shaven. The cuffs of his trousers were wet. This confused her a moment; then she saw that the sink had overflowed. He had dropped the soap and razor. The drain was blocked with a sliver of soap.
....
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Softly the snow falls. In the blue morning light a train winds through the hills. The engine pulls a passenger car, brightly lit. Then a dozen blind coal cars, rumbling dark.
Six mornings a week the train runs westward from Altoona to Pittsburgh, a distance of a hundred miles. The route is indirect, tortuous; the earth is buckled, swollen with what lies beneath. Here and there, the lights of a town: rows of company houses, narrow and square; a main street of commercial buildings, quickly and cheaply built. Brakes screech; the train huffs to a stop. Cars are added. In the passenger compartment, a soldier on furlough clasps his duffel bag, shivers and waits. The whistle blows. Wheezing, the engine leaves the station, slowed by the extra tons of coal.
The train crosses an iron bridge, the black water of the Susquehanna. Lights cluster in the next valley. The town, Bakerton, is already awake. Coal cars thunder down the mountain. The valley is filled with sound.
The valley is deep and sharply featured. Church steeples and mine tipples grow inside it like crystals. At bottom is the town's most famous landmark, known locally as the Towers, two looming piles of mine waste. They are forty feet high and growing, graceful slopes of loose coal and sulfurous dirt. The Towers give off an odor like struck matches. 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.
Bakerton is Saxon County's boomtown. Like the Towers, it is alive with coal. A life that started in the 1880s, when two English brothers, Chester and Elias Baker, broke ground on Baker One. Attracted by handbills, immigrants came: English and Irish, then Italians and Hungarians; then Poles and Slovaks and Ukrainians and Croats, the "Slavish," as they were collectively known. With each new wave the town shifted to make room. Another church was constructed. A new cluster of company houses appeared at the edge of town. The work-mine work-was backbreaking, dangerous and bleak; but at Baker Brothers the union was tolerated. By the standards of the time the pay was generous, the housing affordable and clean.
The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things.
Chester Baker was the town's first mayor. During his term Bakerton acquired the first streetcar line in the county, the first public water supply. Its electric street lamps were purchased from Baker's own pocket. Figure the cost of maintaining them for fifty years, he wrote to the town bosses, and I will pay you the sum in advance. After twenty years Baker ceded his office, but the bosses continued to meet at his house, a rambling yellow-brick mansion on Indian Hill. A hospital was built, the construction crew paid from a fund Baker had established. He wouldn't let the building be named for him. At his direction, it was called Miners' Hospital.
The hospital was constructed in brick; so were the stores, the dress factory, the churches, the grammar school. After the Commercial Hotel burned to the ground in 1909, an ordinance was passed, urging merchants to "make every effort to fabricate their establishments of brick." To a traveler arriving on the morning train-by now an expert on Pennsylvania coal towns-the hat shop and dry-goods store, the pharmacy and mercantile, seem built to last. Their brick facades suggest order, prosperity, permanence.


ON THE SEVENTEENTH of January 1944, a motorcar idled at the railroad crossing, waiting for the train to pass. In the passenger seat was an elderly undertaker of Sicilian descent, named Antonio Bernardi. At the wheel was his great-nephew Gennaro, a handsome, curly-haired youth known in the pool halls as Jerry. Between them sat a blond-haired boy of eight. The car, a black Packard, had been waxed that morning. The old man peered anxiously through the windshield, at the snowflakes melting on the hood.
"These Slavish," he said, as if only a Pole would drop dead in the middle of winter and expect to be buried in a snowstorm.
The train passed, whistle blowing. The Packard crossed the tracks and climbed a steep road lined with company houses, a part of town known as Polish Hill. The road was loose and rocky; the coarse stones, called red dog, came from bony piles on the outskirts of town. Black smoke rose from the chimneys; in the backyards were outhouses, coal heaps, clotheslines stretched between posts. Here and there, miners' overalls hung out to dry, frozen stiff in the January wind.
"These Slavish," Bernardi said again. "They live like animali." At one time, his own brothers had lived in company houses, but the family had improved itself. His nephews owned property, houses filled with modern comforts: telephones and flush toilets, gas stoves and carpeted floors.
"Papa," said Jerry, glancing at the boy; but the child seemed not to hear. He stared out the window wide-eyed, having never ridden in a car before. His name was Sandy Novak; he'd come knocking at Bernardi's back door an hour before-breathless, his nose dripping. His mother had sent him running all the way from Polish Hill, to tell Bernardi to come and get his father.
The car climbed the slope, engine racing. Briefly the tires slid on the ice. At the top of the hill Jerry braked.
"Well?" said the old man to the boy. "Where do you live?"
"Back there," said Sandy Novak. "We passed it."
Bernardi exhaled loudly. "Cristo. Now we got to turn around."
Jerry turned the car in the middle of the road.
"Pay attention this time," Bernardi told the boy. "We don't got all day." In fact he'd buried nobody that week, but he believed in staying available. Past opportunities-fires, rockfalls, the number five collapse-had arisen without warning. Somewhere in Bakerton a miner was dying. Only Bernardi could deliver him to God.
The Bernardis handled funerals at the five Catholic churches in town. A man named Hiram Stoner had a similar arrangement with the Protestants. When Bernardi's black Packard was spotted, the town knew a Catholic had died; Stoner's Ford meant a dead Episcopalian, Lutheran or Methodist. For years Bernardi had transported his customers in a wagon pulled by two horses. During the flu of '18 he'd moved three bodies at a time. Recently, conceding to modernity, he'd bought the Packard; now, when a Catholic died, a Bernardi nephew would be called upon to drive. Jerry was the last remaining; the others had been sent to England and northern Africa. The old man worried that Jerry, too, would be drafted. Then he'd have no one left to drive the hearse.
"There it is," the boy said, pointing. "That's my house."
Jerry slowed. The house was mean and narrow like the others, but a front porch had been added, painted green and white. One window, draped with lace curtains, held a porcelain statue of the Madonna. In the other window hung a single blue star.
"Who's the soldier?" said Jerry.
"My brother Georgie," said Sandy, then added what his father always said. "He's in the South Pacific."
They climbed the porch stairs, stamping snow from their shoes. A woman opened the door. Her dark hair was loose, her mouth full. A baby slept against her shoulder. She was beautiful, but not young-at least forty, if Bernardi had to guess. He was like a timberman who could guess the age of a tree before counting the rings inside. He had rarely been wrong.
She let them inside. Her eyelids were puffy, her eyes rimmed with red. She inhaled sharply, a moist, slurry sound.
Bernardi offered his hand. He'd expected the usual Slavish type: pale and round-faced, a long braid wrapped around her head so that she resembled a fancy pastry. This one was dark-eyed, olive-skinned. He glanced down at her bare feet. Italian, he realized with a shock. His mother and sisters had never worn shoes in the house.
"My dear lady," he said. "My condolences for your loss."
"Come in." She had an ample figure, heavy in the bosom and hip. The type Bernardi-an old bachelor, a window-shopper who'd looked but had never bought-had always liked.
She led them through a tidy parlor-polished pine floor, a braided rug at the center. A delicious aroma came from the kitchen. Not the usual Slavish smell, the sour stink of cooked cabbage.
"This way," said the widow. "He's in the cellar."
They descended a narrow staircase-the widow first, then Jerry and Bernardi. The dank basement smelled of soap, onions and coal. The widow switched on the light, a single bare bulb in the ceiling. A man lay on the cement floor-fair-haired, with a handlebar mustache. A silver medal on a chain around his neck: Saint Anne, protectress of miners. His hair was wet, his eyes already closed.
"He just come home from the mines," said the widow, her voice breaking. "He was washing up. I wonder how come he take so long."
Bernardi knelt on the cold floor. The man was tall and broad-shouldered. His shirt was damp; the color had already left his face. Bernardi touched his throat, feeling for a pulse.
"It's no point," said the woman. "The priest already come."
Bernardi grasped the man's legs, leaving Jerry the heavier top half. Together they hefted the body up the stairs. Bernardi was sixty-four that spring, but his work had kept him strong. He guessed the man weighed two hundred pounds, heavy even for a Slavish.
They carried the body out the front door and laid it in the rear of the car. The boy watched from the porch. A moment later the widow appeared, still holding the baby. She had put on shoes. She handed Bernardi a dark suit on a hanger.
"He wore it when we got married," she said. "I hope it still fits." Bernardi took the suit. "We'll bring him back tonight. How about you get a couple neighbors to help us? He'll be heavier with the casket."
The widow nodded. In her arms the baby stirred. Bernardi smiled stiffly. He found infants tedious; he preferred them silent and unconscious, like this one. "A little angel," he said. "What's her name?"
 "Lucy." The widow stared over his shoulder at the car. "Dio mio. I can't believe it."
"Iddio la benedica."
They stood there a moment, their heads bowed. Gently Bernardi patted her shoulder. He was an old man; by his own count he'd buried more than a thousand bodies; he had glimpsed the darkest truths, the final secrets. Still, life held surprises. Here was a thing he had never witnessed, an Italian wife on Polish Hill.

 

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

One of the literary world's most luminous rising stars, Jennifer Haigh earned coast-to-coast raves and the PEN/Hemingway Award for her debut, Mrs. Kimble. In her second novel, Haigh not only meets but surpasses the expectations established by her first book. Combining Haigh's extraordinary storytelling with a haunting meditation on the passage of time, Baker Towers traces the lives of three generations in a community that tenderly echoes the American experience.

In the coalmines of western Pennsylvania, Stanley Novak endured backbreaking work alongside scores of men just like him, immigrants or the sons of immigrants providing for their families in close-knit Bakerton, a town named for its mine. Bakerton is home to all five of Stanley's children, though he will not live to see them reach adulthood. His widow, Rose, will watch their oldest son, George, become a soldier in World War II. Their daughter Joyce will join the military as well, hoping the Air Force can give her opportunities that working-class Bakerton could not. Their daughter Dorothy will take a job in Washington, D.C., where her fragile beauty and romantic ideals make her dangerously vulnerable. Their two youngest children will struggle to fill the empty emotions of growing up without a father while seeking a world far beyond his. But at each turning point in love or fortune or work, the siblings can't forget the beacon of home.

Evoking a long-lost time and place with powerful precision, Baker Towers follows the Novak family through a mesmerizing circle of destiny. You'll not soon forget their story.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do the opening paragraphs depict Bakerton as an oppressive community or a utopia, or a combination of the two? Viewing the town itself as a character, how would you describe its biography?

  2. Discuss the social distinctions embodied in the Novak family. What roles did society prescribe for Rose and Stanley, based on gender and class? Did their children lead more fulfilling lives than their parents?

  3. Do you attribute the differences between the siblings to temperament or circumstance? How was each one affected by Stanley's death?

  4. How would you characterize the author's narrative style? What is the effect of her choices regarding scenery, storyline, and other aspects of the novel's architecture?

  5. Before meeting Rose, Antonio Bernardi had never seen an Italian wife on Polish Hill. In what ways has the American immigrant experience, and the character of immigrant communities, changed over the past century?

  6. George's parents named him after George Washington rather than calling him Stanley Novak, Jr. They wanted to emphasize the American, not Polish, aspect of his identity. What freedoms and restrictions are illustrated by George's marriage, and his wistful love of Ev? What enables his son to embrace Bakerton?

  7. What keeps Dorothy in Washington, D.C., in a life defined by repetitiveness and sterility for so many years? How does her definition of morality shift throughout the novel? What does her perception of the world reveal about her perception of herself?

  8. Joyce's intellectual drive is accompanied by a strong dose of practicality. Do you view her as the family's savior or as a wet blanket? Why do so many of her efforts go unappreciated?

  9. Is Sandy the antithesis of George, or a reflection of him? Does either brother remind you of Stanley?

  10. What does Lucy convey about the nature of hunger, and the nature of beauty? What is the significance of her eventual role as healer?

  11. The tragic mine disaster shapes the novel's conclusion, leading to the image of Amish settlers arriving in Saxon County. What dies along with Eugene Stusick and his co-workers? What allows something new to be reborn in this community?

  12. Who are the novel's most prosperous characters? How do you define prosperity in your own life? What family legacies have shaped your dreams?

  13. Mrs. Kimble also conveyed a theme of illusion versus reality. Compare the ways in which that theme plays out in both novels.

About the Author

Jennifer Haigh is the author of Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction and was a finalist for the Booksense Best Book of the Year Award. Her short stories have appeared in Good Housekeeping, the Hartford Courant, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Hull, Massachusetts.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    A realistic good read!

    I found this book hard to put down. It transported me to a different time in american history. Tragic and realistic, i will definitely read more fron this writer.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 19, 2013

    I love this book!

    I love this book! The old neighborhoods, ethnic foods, small town feel all ring so true. I can see my aunts, mother and grandmother(s) in this book, sweet, sad satisfying read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 18, 2013

    Coming from a small town and one-time mining town, I found mysel

    Coming from a small town and one-time mining town, I found myself completely enamored with BAKER TOWERS, and those little idiosyncrasies that define small town life: the unwillingness to escape, the focus on comfort and the familiar, the constantly churning gossip mill, the quaint downtown, the neat little streets, and the emphasis on family. Had this been the only endearing part of the novel, it still would have been a worthwhile read. But Jennifer Haigh offers her readers so much more. She takes an intricate look at the Novak family and their five children, and she tackles issues like love and loss, success and failure, and greed and generosity with a stealth pen and attention to detail. It is her attention to detail that really brings out the hearts and souls of these characters, transforming them from what in many cases could have been static characters to giving them multi-dimensional appeal.

    Like Bakerton, Georgie, Dorothy, Joyce, Lucy, and Sandy are defined by more than the twin stacks of mine waste that come to represent the town. While all five children have grown up within the walls of the Novak household, each proves as unique as snowflakes and as fragile in many respects as the morning dew. It’s this fragility that brings fullness and richness to the characters, and the lives of those they interact with. And ultimately it defines the pull of home, whether they reach out and grab it, or do whatever they can to run from it. That is the true definition of small town life, and it’s a message that resonates throughout this novel’s pages.

    Robert Downs
    Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2012

    Not great.

    Characters were always to vague to really care about. It seemed like the plot never really went anywhere.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    These were the depression kids generation of

    The last "good" war whose parents were "the lost generation" many who were also in two wars the first to end wars. This was the time of genocide by nations gone mad. WWI was contained at a front between armies but from then on insane killing ended by two a bombs. trying to repeat the military industrial recovery of the depression kids by little wars with their grandkids has failed. Look at the "made in" tag of everything. Deoression kid

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2013

    Start of a series about a Pa mining town

    I did not realize that this was the start of a series when I purchased the book. I'm not sure if I will continue reading the others or not. It was well written and the characters, of course a about a dysfunctional family, were interesting. The books was written from the viewpoint of some of the characters, but at least she kept it to a reasonable number of people so that they could be better developed rather than trying to do all of them. It was a good, relaxing type read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2013

    Great read

    Lovef

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)