Times and Life

Who was Harriette Arnow? Thomas Arnow on his mother

Thomas Arnow reflects on the life of his mother, Harriette Arnow, and how her own experiences inspired her bestselling, much-neglected novel The Dollmaker


My mother, Harriette Simpson Arnow, was born in 1908, at home in rural Kentucky in Appalachia, a large mountainous area of the southeastern United States. Her main interest as a child was writing, which did not sit well with her family in an era when girls, if they worked outside the home before marriage, usually became nurses or teachers. By the time she was 18, she taught in a rural one-room school.

She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville in 1931 and moved in 1934 to Cincinnati, where she worked as a waitress, typist, and clerk to support herself as a writer. She had several short stories published, as well as her first novel, Mountain Path (1936). While working for a Depression-era government program to support writers, she met my father, Harold Bernard Arnow (1908-1985), a journalist who courted her with stories of his Alaskan adventures and life in Chicago. They married in 1939 and bought a farm in a community called Keno, where they planned to grow enough food to support themselves so they could write. They had two children who survived to adulthood: my sister, Marcella (1941-2010) and myself, Thomas (b. 1946).

Harriette Arnow

 Harriette Arnow

After the United States entered World War II, record numbers of Southern Appalachians migrated north searching for high paying factory work. My parents moved along with this flood of people late in the war. Daddy left first, getting a job as a newspaper reporter. Mama followed with baby Marcella. They lived in wartime housing. In 1950, my parents bought 40 acres of land north of Ann Arbor. Daddy continued his reporter job, commuting to Detroit. Mama completed her novel, Hunter's Horn (1949), about a man obsessed with hunting one particular fox. Her book became a bestseller and one of the ten best American novels of 1949.

The Dollmaker (1954) describes the travails of people who live in the same poor mountain farming community that was the setting of Hunter’s Horn. The Nevels family made the same journey from Kentucky to Detroit that our family did. The story centres on Gertie, the mother, who moved north with the children a few months after her husband Clovis got a job in a thinly disguised Ford factory. Gertie undergoes great culture shock, starting on the train trip north where she encounters her first Black person, and continuing in Detroit, where she learns about gas stoves and grocery stores, neither of which she has ever seen before.

She meets her quirky neighbours, including immigrants with Italian or Polish accents. Some of her children easily assimilate, losing their accents and adopting the mannerisms of the local kids. Gertie and two of her children struggle to retain their Appalachian culture in an alien world. The family deals with the loss of income from work stoppages due to labour disputes. Of course, my parents were far more educated than the Nevels, but Mama based much of the story on her own trip from Kentucky to life in the “housing project.” The Dollmaker, a bestseller translated into several languages, received recognition as runner-up (to Faulkner’s A Fable) for the National Book Award.

The Dollmaker remains relevant today. All over the world, people migrate from the countryside to cities and make adjustments to survive

The Dollmaker remains relevant today. All over the world, people migrate from the countryside to cities and make adjustments to survive. To this day, in China and the developing world rural villages empty out and cities swell. Legal and illegal immigrants still brave all sorts of obstacles to reach the United States and other rich countries. A major theme of the novel is assimilation into a new culture. As always, when a family moves into a place with different speech and culture, the youngest will blend in immediately, while the adults take a long time and often never truly belong to the new place. Some children live in a cultural limbo, not knowing where they belong. These issues have contemporary relevance.

Back in the 1950s, Mama sold the The Dollmaker movie rights to Columbia Pictures, now Sony. At some point, Jane Fonda discovered the book and made a film for television starring herself as Gertie. The Dollmaker movie won two Primetime Emmys, a Directors Guild Award, a Humanitas Prize, and a Writers Guild of America Award. It also received seven nominations, including a Golden Globe.

She died in 1986 and, at the end of her life, was revising a Civil War novel called Belle, as yet unpublished. She was drawn to explore the effects of big historical events on ordinary families, to record daily events and common struggles in unflinching and insightful ways that revealed them as realistic and extraordinary.

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


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