Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh (audio)

Baker Towers
by Jennifer Haigh 
William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
7 CDs, 8 hrs. 36 minutes
Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields 

Baker Towers is the sort of novel that is often described as a "sweeping family saga," one spanning an entire generation in the life of a family. In this case, the reader follows the Novak clan  from 1944, beginning with the sudden death of patriarch Stanley Novak, into the 1970s.

The Novak family (widow Rose and her five children: George, Dorothy, Joyce, Sandy, and Lucy) live in Bakerton, Pennsylvania
"a company town built on coal, a town of church festivals and ethnic neighborhoods ..... Its children are raised in company houses - three rooms upstairs, three rooms downstairs, Its ball club leads the coal company league. The twelve Baker mines offer good union jobs, and the looming black piles of mine dirt don't bother anyone. Called Baker Towers, they are local landmarks, clear evidence that the mines are booming. Baker towers mean good wages and meat on the table, two weeks' paid vacation and presents under the Christmas tree." (from the book jacket)
Like the Towers themselves, the people in Bakerton are akin to local landmarks too. Many seldom leave - but when they do, there's something about Bakerton and the small town way of life there that calls them back. It's in your bones, in your blood, it's not unlike the black lung disease that would eventually claim many of the town's men who worked in the coal mines. It's the close-knit nature of the town, family, and the way everyone knows everybody else.
"You knew Randazzo from the Knights, Kukla and Stusick from St. Casimir's. You'd seen Quinn and Kelly playing cards at the Vets, the Yurkovich twins at the firehall dances, walking the Bakerton Circle. Kovac's wife ran a press iron at the dress factory. Angie's uncle had buried yours. You knew them from the Legion, the ball field.  There was no escaping all the ways you knew them. The ways they were just like you." (pg. 307)
I'll admit, Baker Towers started off a bit slow for me - but as the narrative delved more and more into the minds and lives of the individual characters, the choices they made and the consequences and sacrifices they faced, I found myself becoming more drawn into the story. (Jennifer Haigh's The Condition was a DNF book for me; I briefly thought Baker Towers might meet the same fate, but I was glad to be proven wrong.)

For the most part, Haigh gives her reader memorable and realistic characters, defining them well.  Of all of them, my absolute favorite was Joyce, one of the five Novak children. An academically promising student, Joyce enlists in the Air Force after high school. She's a woman born a generation too early, as one discovers while reading of her struggles to get a job after returning home to Bakerton after her voluntary discharge from the military. She knows she's being sexually discriminated against, but this was in an era where women's rights weren't what they are today. (Well, for now, anyway.) I would have liked to have seen Joyce become more involved in the women's rights movement of the day.  (The time that Haigh spent on the character of Sandy could have been used for this, as he didn't add much to the novel, in my opinion.)

Jennifer Haigh does an excellent job of taking her reader back to a different era, one that in many cases has been somewhat forgotten. It's easy to forget that there was a time not all that long ago when treatment for conditions such as diabetes and postpartum depression were simply not what they are today; we take this for granted now when that was very much not the case just a few decades ago. Baker Towers, then, looks at the question of how the era in which we live shapes us, but in what ways does the actual town where we grow up mold us too?  More importantly, what impact do the people of our hometown have on who we become and is it ever possible to truly "go home again"?

The setting of Baker Towers was one that was very much of interest to me, given that my work takes me into small rural communities like Bakerton, Pa. Indeed, there is an actual Bakerton, Pa (although I thought the Bakerton in the book was intended to be fictional, a stand-in, perhaps, for Jennifer Haigh's hometown of Barnesboro, Pa. which couldn't be located via Mapquest).  I haven't been to Bakerton, but I've been to towns damn close to it - and while I was listening to the first lines of the audiobook, I was driving through a county that runs through the very same mountainous terrain as the train.
"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." (pg. 1)
(This also connects very, very well to the ending of Baker Towers ... but I'm not going to include that here because of giving away spoilers to the plot.)

As regular blog readers of mine know, I'm a Pittsburgh transplant from Philadelphia. In Baker Towers, the oldest son, George, marries a girl from Philadelphia's Main Line - so I loved that there were several delightful references to the City of Brotherly Love. George's betrothed is part of a wealthy family that owns a local department store, Quigley's, and I'm guessing that the iconic Philadelphia Strawbridge & Clothier was the model for that.  (Or perhaps John Wanamaker, but regardless, those parts of the novel were fun to listen to and brought back many memories.)

As an audiobook, I thought Baker Towers worked well.  I liked Anna Fields's narration and thought that she did a good job keeping all the multiple voices distinct and consistent.  (However, one of my pet peeves with audiobooks was evidenced here. I don't like when females lower their voices to portray male characters. It drives me crazy because it sounds so fake and I cannot stand it. There are quite a few male characters in Baker Towers so if you share this pet peeve of mine, you might be better served reading this one in print form.)

Ms. Fields's narration is also a bit monotone, which takes some adjustment at first, but in a way it does kind of fit the tone of the novel. There were boom times in Bakerton, but overall, this isn't a cheerful tale. These people aren't overly happy with their lot in life. They're wishing for more - and those who do finally attain more wind up wishing for what was left behind in Bakerton all along.

I gave this 3 stars ("I liked it") on Goodreads, and if I could, I would have given it 3.5 for the excellent characterization of Joyce. I really thought Jennifer Haigh did such an excellent job with that character. She also made the town itself a character, which I also really liked. Still, there were other characters (like Sandy) who I thought were unnecessary to the plot and others who weren't as developed as they could have been. There was also the feeling that something was missing in this book, but that flatness might be intentional. It's a quick read (or listen, in my case) and could very well be the sort of book that grows on you as time passes.

What Other Bloggers Had to Say (let me know in the comments if I missed your review!)

A Book a Week
Everyday I Write the Book
Reflections of a Bookaholic

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Elisabeth said...

I am listening to Baker Towers right now. I agree that this book as well as The Condition were slow starts, but once you get past the hump they take off. I read Mrs. Kimble so long ago I don't remember if it is true of this book too. I also "read" The Condition on audio. It has been my experience that some books are better on audio and others better in print. I think Haigh is the former. I love how her stories slowly unfold. I have just Faith left of hers to listen to and hope she continues to publish in the future. She is now one of my favorite authors.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I fell in love with this book in the printed version, so I'm so glad you got past the slower point to enjoy the rest of it!

Faith is an excellent selection of Jennifer Haigh's in audio; the narrator is incredible.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

So glad you were able to push through the slower parts and end up enjoying it! Baker Towers is a favorite of mine; I read the printed version earlier this year. If you haven't already, I would recommend the audio version of Jennifer Haigh's Faith. That was brilliantly performed and an absorbing story.