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5 reasons you need to read Harriette Arnow's lost masterpiece, The Dollmaker

First published in 1954, The Dollmaker spent 31 weeks in the New York Times bestseller chart. For all that, it is little known in the UK. Here are five short passages that show off Arnow’s brilliance.
 


1. Gertie Nevels, the dollmaker of the title

Gertie is fiercely strong, determined and hell-bent on giving her young family the best life she can. Here she is in the opening pages forcing a passing car to stop as she needs a lift to get her son to a doctor:

“She jerked, kicked the mule, until he, already crazed with fright, jumped almost directly in front of the car, forcing it to swerve again, this time so sharply that it went completely off the road. It plowed partway into a thicket of little pines, then stopped on the narrow sandy shoulder above the bluff edge. The woman looked once at the car, then away and past the trembling mule’s ears; and though she looked down it was like searching the sky on a cloudy day. There was only fog, thickened in splotches, greenish above a pasture field, brownish over the corn far down in the valley below the tree-tops by the bluff edge.

‘You done good, real good,’ she whispered to the mule.”
 

2. Arnow’s portraits of childhood

There are five children in the Nevels family, but none of them as beautifully drawn as Cassie. She is rarely to be found without her imaginary friend Callie Lou in the novel’s early pages, but later her existence threatens everyone’s happiness:

“When Gertie continued silent, only making another long shaving fall from the ax handle, smiling on it as if it had been gold, Clytie raised her voice in a kind of beseeching scolding: ‘Cassie Marie, cain’t you behave yourself, a locken up Amos thataway? Are you allus a goen to be this mean in our own home?’

Cassie laughed. ‘I didn’t do nothen. It was Callie Lou locked him up, and it warn’t no more’n she ought to ha done. He come in drunk frum Indianee ’thout one cent fer his wife an youngens. He’s spent all his money in an—in a—’”

3. Surrounded by people, we can feel more alone than ever

The Nevels family moves from rural Kentucky, where they live off the land, to industrial Detroit for Gertie’s husband Clovis’s job. For all that she doesn’t want to go, Gertie is optimistic. Nothing can prepare her for stepping off the train, though, and Arnow's portrayal of her panic and isolation is sympathetic and tragic in equal measure:

“Gertie had no time to think of where she went or why. The press of people so hurried her up the long steel ramp that Cassie, clinging to her coattail, screamed with fright. Though she already had two split baskets on one arm and Amos on the other, she tried to pick up the child, but could not bend among the pushing, tightly packed bodies.

The crowd bore her through the gate, and at once there was more room, but no Clovis and no sign of the other children. She backed away a little, got Cassie out of the jam, and stood looking about her with quick, frightened glances. Where were the children, and where was Clovis? Panic overtook her when she realized that the last of the people were off the train. The rushing now was toward the train gate. Maybe the youngens had got scared and turned back. She wanted to rub her eyes, but realized that neither hand was free. How did the children look? The colors of their new clothing had evaporated from her head.”


4. Our relationship with money

In Kentucky, the Nevelses are not well off, but neither are they poor. They live a humble lifestyle and work the land to get what they need. On moving to Detroit, money seeps like a bad smell into all aspects of life, even looking at a little girl playing in her new dress:

“She nodded toward the alley where Sophronie’s Wheateye was running down the steps. She wore a new pink rayon dress, and had an oversized doll on one arm and the box of red plastic dishes cradled in the other. Gertie watched a little saucer fall from a corner of the flimsy crumpling box and lie, a bright spot of red in the snow. She ought to call and tell the child that she had lost a dish, but she only shook her head. Did it matter? In a few days the box would be gone, the dishes broken, and nothing left but their price. Sophronie would pay that off at so much a week. $2.75 they had cost. How much was $2.75?”


5. The mystery of art

Gertie may not think of heself as an artist, ony as a mother who carries a knife in her pocket and whittles dolls to ease her mind. But she certainly is one, and as her deft hands bring out a figure emerges from her most precious block of wood so her character emerges from the text.

“The man in the wood at first seemed far away, walled off like all other life about her by furious sound of wind and water and the whole earth shaking; the knife fumbled, a lost knife hunting a lost man in the wood; no, not lost, hiding, forever hiding. But gradually the thing in the wood came closer and yielded itself, and chips and shavings fell. The hair grew, taking up the whole world, everything in the world; and there were moments like a drowsing dreaming when she and the wood were alone, alone in her mother’s house, though sometimes she looked up, frowning, annoyed by the strange brightness of the lamplight that made the shadow of her moving hand fall blackly on the wood.”

Find out more about the author

The Dollmaker

Harriette Arnow

'A terrifying lesson in US history – and a haunting tragedy' Guardian

Gertie is the young mother of five children – uneducated, determined, strong. Her only ambition is to own her own small farm in the Kentucky hills where she lives, to become self-sufficient and free.

Whenever the struggle to live off the land eases, her inarticulate imagination takes its freedom and flies. Because Gertie is also an artist, a sculptor of wood and creator of beautiful handmade dolls.

When the family is forced to move to industrial Detroit, with its pre-fab houses, appliances bought on credit and neighbours on every side, life turns into an incomprehensible, lonely nightmare. Gertie realises she must adapt to a life where land, family and creativity are replaced by just one thing: the constant need for money.

‘A masterwork… A superb book of unforgettable strength and glowing richness’ New York Times

WITH AN AFTERWORD BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

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