I hadn’t heard of this book until last year when I was trying to find classics that would fit the Back to the Classics challenge. And I’m curious now – is this a book that is familiar to you? Was it taught in school?
After reading it, I thought, this is a great American classic with a terrible title.
It doesn’t help that when I googled “The Dollmaker” this comes up.
Some kind of Marvel villain. Apparently the name ‘Dollmaker’ has been claimed by a variety of villains. Because it really has unpleasant connotations, doesn’t it.
Of course Harriette Arnow wrote this book in far more innocent times – it was first published in 1954.
The dollmaker in question is Gertie Nevels, a woman of the Kentucky hills. Gertie is strong, both physically and mentally. She is a woman of the mountain, comfortable with her life there, harsh though it may be. One of her particular skills is whittling – she works wonders with wood and is skilled at carving dolls. She is proud of the life she has made there with her family. But it is soon to be all for naught as her husband Clovis goes to Detroit to work in the factories and the family is expected to follow suit.
“Six-thirty to seven-thirty was pure dark still, like the middle of the night. It was a lonesome in-between time when her hands remembered the warm feel of a cow’s teats or the hardness of a churn handle, or better beyond all things – the taste of spring water, the smell of good air, clean air, earth under her feet.”
Gertie is a fish out of water in the big city. And really, life there is hardly any better than in Kentucky. The house is tiny and it is freezing cold. The schools are run down. The family gets called ‘hillbillies’ a lot and everyone has some kind of an opinion about them and how they need to adapt to life in the city. And all the horrors of modern city life such as surviving on credit, strikes, and being able to hear your neighbours through the thin walls.
Mrs. Whittle bit her freshly lipsticked lips. “The trouble is,” she went on, “you don’t want to adjust – and Rueben doesn’t either.”
“That’s part way right,” Gertie said, moving past her to the stairs. “But he can’t hep the way he’s made. It’s a lot more trouble to roll out steel – an make it like you want it – than it is biscuit dough.”
The dialect was a little tricky at first, and it took me a couple of tries to get into the book. It is rather full of despair – the poverty, the struggle to get used to their new lives, the longing Gertie has to return to her hills and to work the fields.
It amazes me that a book like this, one of misery and wretchedness, can be so compelling to read.
I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 – A 20th Century Classic