Every couple of years or so, a contemporary publisher “rediscovers” a classic. Most successfully, this happened to Stoner back in 2013. Now it is the turn of The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow, a 605-page doorstop that reads like something half its size, about the struggles of hill farmer Gertrude Nevels as she adjusts to life as a factory worker’s wife in WWII industrial Detroit. Vintage has just reprinted it, with their inimitable red spine, and if there’s any justice (which, of course, there rarely is), it will see a renaissance like Stoner’s.
It is essentially a novel about culture clash, and about being uprooted. Gertie Nevels is our point-of-view character and heroine: the book opens with her giving her youngest child, Amos, a tracheotomy by the side of the road, while a US Army officer hems and haws about the propriety of giving her a lift to the doctor’s in town. We thus learn two things about Gertie almost immediately: one, she is fearless, not especially sentimental but a mother to the core and completely certain of her own strength; and two, she is a very good carver. She refers to what she does as “whittlin”, but the Army officer notes it as artistic skill; she whittles a tube for her baby’s throat to complete the tracheotomy, a detailed and fiddly piece of work, without trouble. (Dialogue throughout the book is written in Appalachian dialect. Instead of seeming like authorial mockery, this allows Arnow’s characters dignity whilst constantly reinforcing their identity: we can never forget that these are hill people, country people, people to whom urban, 20th-century America is alien.) Gertie is utterly confident in her own demesne. She is strong; she can dig and plant potatoes on her own, chop and haul wood, milk the cow. Her husband Clovis’s periodic absences hauling coal in his truck are not a problem; she is tall and broad, a farmer’s daughter and a sharecropper, and you immediately understand that she could run an entire small farm herself with little difficulty.
The outbreak of war has had a huge impact on their community. (One of the best scenes in the book comes early, when the women of the settlement gather at the general store-cum-post office to await the mail, delivered by ancient Uncle Ansel and his donkey; Arnow beautifully but quietly conveys the crippling anxiety of a community composed almost entirely now of women, some of whom have already lost sons or husbands, others of whom are desperately praying that today isn’t the day they lose theirs.) When Clovis has to leave for a few days for his army fitness assessment, she’s not too worried—surely the army won’t take a farmer?—but then he disappears for weeks, and when she next hears from him, he’s moved to Detroit and found work in a factory. Gertie’s appalling mother (drawn with the same pen as Gwendoline Riley uses on her character Neve’s mother in First Love, a whining, carping, manipulative horror, only in this case with added God-bothering) guilts her into joining him, so she gives up her hope of buying the Tipton Place, uproots her children, and takes the train north.
Almost immediately, it becomes clear that they’ve made a mistake. Reading the Detroit sections of The Dollmaker while flat-hunting alone in London is an astonishingly resonant experience; Arnow describes cramped conditions, poor ventilation, smells, dirt, noisy neighbours, and—most critically for Gertie—an almost total lack of nature. Living in the city creates other disconnects: their furniture and car, Gertie is horrified to discover, have been bought “on time” (credit), and every month seems to drive them further into debt. A block of wood that she has brought with her from home, which she intends to carve into the image of a Christ, is often abandoned for days or weeks at a time: Clovis thinks she can make money selling dolls to women and children in the neighbourhood, and she gets commissions for crucifixes and jointed dolls from wealthier people—her neighbour’s husband’s boss, amongst others.
Money is so constantly in short supply that efficiency, and profit, begin to take over Gertie’s work. She doesn’t want them to—one of Arnow’s strengths is her ability to convince us that Gertie is an artist through and through, not because of any airy-fairy beliefs about the integrity of creating, but because she was born to it, born with the skill and the need to practice it—but Clovis is insistent. The purchase of a jig saw, which enables Gertie and her children to cut pre-drawn two-dimensional shapes out of wood, speeds up the production considerably, but it comes at the expense of hand-carving, and therefore of art. The Nevels children, most of whom adapt speedily to their new circumstances, delight in their “home factory”; it throws Gertie into despair and depression, knowing as she does that the need to pay the bills will trump, every time, the need to make something beautiful and meaningful.
Gertie’s problem – one of Gertie’s problems – is that she is inarticulate. She’s an artist, but a visual, physical, active one; she carves and whittles, hoes and hews. Words don’t come easily or naturally to her. Nor do they come naturally to Clovis, a mechanic whose “tinkering” is the source of mild mockery in their small community. Gertie and Clovis love each other, clearly, at the beginning of the novel, even though they don’t have the words for it; by the end, they barely speak to one another, and have been changed out of all recognition by the new community in which they live.This inarticulacy combines with inherently patriarchal attitudes to create a code of conduct for women that seems designed for their misery: at one point, Clovis becomes anxious when he thinks Gertie is in pain, mostly because she has apparently never given any indication of being physically hurt or ill throughout their entire married life. Though it’s never stated (like so much else in this book), we can surmise that Clovis’s obliviousness to his wife’s ability to feel pain – despite her having given birth at least five times – is partly down to that female code that doesn’t let you “trouble” your husband.
One of the tragedies of The Dollmaker is that it’s a portrait of a marriage which could, in other times, have ended in divorce, as the two parties realise they are simply too dissimilar in what they want and value in life. As it is, Gertie is stuck. By the end of the book, whether she loves him or not doesn’t even matter: she must keep producing, keep paying the rent, keep her children in shoes. The block of wood that she tries to make into a Christ is sometimes mistaken for a Judas; it’s a fitting uncertainty for a book that shows us so brutally how sacrifice can also be betrayal.