American working-class women’s literature can be devastating. We’re not talking Raymond Carver’s out-of-work drunks or Arthur Miller’s tragic Death of a Salesman: we’re talking about women’s shattered lives as their husbands work for starvation wages as tenant farmers or factory workers. Sometimes the women take in laundry or baby-sit, but they still cannot eke out a living. In fact, working-class American literature is often so bleak and gritty that people find it too depressing to read.
Harriette Simpson Arnow’s masterpiece, The Dollmaker, is one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. That said, it has quietly disappeared from the canon. Published in 1954 and a finalist for the National Book Award, it is now a women’s “cult classic,” passed on by word of mouth. I admit, it is too shattering to be a popular read, but the writing is beautiful and the story unforgettable.
Set during World War II, it centers on Gertie Nevels, a tenant farmer in Kentucky whose feckless husband, Clovis, takes off to Detroit to work in a factory and make “big money.” Gertie has always been the farmer, while Clovis tinkered on people’s trucks and other machines and lost money. She has secretly saved money to buy a farm.
When the Army doesn’t need him right away, he flits off to Detroit and doesn’t write to Gertie until he has a job. Gertie figures Clovis will come back after the war, when the factories lay people off. And she is relieved that he won’t interfere with her buying the farm.
The heroine, Gertie, is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is a big, tall, strong woman who enjoys working on the farm and, while the men are away at war, she helps other women dig potatoes and carries heavy loads for them. She is also brilliant, though she has minimal education. She meditates on theological questions and teaches her children at home from McGuffey readers. She is also an artist: she “whittles’ dolls and pine cone turkeys, and is sculpting a figure of Christ in huge block of wood .
Living in gorgeous Appalachia, she appreciates not only the beauty of the land but the quirky people in her family. Her interactions with her daughter Cassie are especially empathic. Cassie, who has an imaginary friend, Callie Lou, cannot learn to read. This imaginative child is jeered at and accused of lying by her sensible, unimaginative older sister, Clytie.
Here is a beautiful passage that shows the sensitivity of Gertie on a walk to her parents’ farm.
She walked faster, but slackened her pace when she heard Cassie’s prattle, behind her, now. She looked back and saw her high in a wide-branched pine by the road, and called, “You could fall, climben so high,” her tone kindly with no scolding, speaking less in fear that Cassie might fall than to fling some sound into the silence of road, pine tree, and sky.
“Callie Lou, she’s th one that’ll fall. She’s clean to th tip-top branch. Cain’t you see her red dress?”
“She’d better git down,” Gertie said, walking on.
Arnow’s use of dialect is masterly, but perhaps dialect abbreviates a book’s shelf life. Yes, we all used to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but nowadays people who don’t understand Twain’s humor want it censored or excised from curricula. I don’t believe anyone writes in dialect anymore, and yet we all used to hear it.. In my home state, people used to say “warsh” for wash and “git” for get. I don’t miss it, but I wonder: has dialect vanished? And are books with dialect somehow controversial?
In The Dollmaker, the idyll of Kentucky ends. Roll over, Mommie Dearest, because Gertie’s hysterical bitchy mother decides it is Gertie’s duty is to go to Detroit. I won’t tell you what evil deed she does to ensure Gertie can’t buy the farm, but it ends in tragedy.
So the family goes to Detroit, with the 10-year-old son, Reuben, smoldering, hating his mother for knuckling under. And guess what Detroit, a gloomy city on Lake Erie, holds for the Nevels? Is it beautiful? No, it is not. Is there money? No. When they get off the train, they can hardly believe how cold and ugly it is. And when the taxi driver takes them to the address Gertie gives him, all of them are bewildered.
She stared straight ahead past the dirty alley snow, littered with blowing bits of paper, tin cans, trampled banana skins, and orange peels, at a high board fence. Past the fence she saw what looked to be an empty, brush-grown field; but while she looked a train rushed past. Everything was blotted out in the waves of smoke and steam that blew down; tiny cinders whirled with the snow against the windshield, and the smell and taste of smoke choked her. The noise subsided enough that she could hear the driver say, “Well, this is it.”
The sky is ugly, red and smoky from the steel industry. They live in a tiny “unit” in workers’ housing on an alley, which I gather is like the projects. Naturally, Clovis’s money amounts to nothing. And everything has to be a cookie-cutter pattern in Detroit; there is pressure to buy the same things and the children must abandon Appalachian words like “young-uns.” The children struggle at school, and there is fighting among the different ethnic groups fight. The Catholic Daly family is especiallyy: Mr. Daly is in with the police and the union stewards and if he takes against you, you’re in for it.
Gertie is lost and horrified. The eggs are not fresh and the meat is often bad. When she sells some whittled dolls and whittles a crucifix for a Catholic neighbor, Clovis gets greedy. He wants her to stop whittling and carve out coookie-dutter dolls from a patterned saw (a jigsaw?_. The dolls are hideous, and Gertie feels her integrity is compromised. Of course these don’t make money, either.
There is one tragedy after another. But the book is not only stunningly lyrical and unputdownable but an American classic, in the same class as Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.