If you want to have a string of intensely enjoyable summer afternoons, I suggest you spend them in Bakerton, PA. A has-been coal town in western Pennsylvania, this place and its various residents is the subject of a series of novels by Jennifer Haigh, who New York Times critic Janet Maslin says is “an expertly nuanced storyteller long overdue for major attention. Her work is gripping, real and totally immersive, akin to that of writers as different as Richard Price, Richard Ford and Richard Russo. They are part of the stellar literary lineup of her admirers. With (her latest) book, (Heat and Light) she moves one big step closer to being in their league.”
One of the differences between Haigh and the authors Maslin mentions is that while she is writing about a place dominated by such male pursuits as coal mining and farming, in this book, centered on fracking, the women are always in the forefront of the picture. The industries of the various residents provide the backdrop for what are enormously rich sagas. Haigh plumbs the depths of this isolated place and comes up with shining nuggets of family drama, never predictable, but complex and surprising in the way real people are.
Haigh won the PEN/Hemingway award for her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, a wonderful book with a clever structure: she follows the lives of three different women, all “Mrs. Kimbles,” having married the same man at one time along the way. In the Bakerton books, beginning with Baker Towers (2005), she makes the town the central unifying element. It is a wonderful setting not only for the host of family issues she explores, but also as the landscape through which the whole panoply of American life in the past 100 years is revealed. Issues like immigration, social class, labor relations, military service, mental illness, and especially our relationship to the land and the environment are given vivid life though Haigh’s characters.
The story begins with Baker Towers, which are not apartment buildings but 40-60 foot heaps of coal debris at one end of town, which catch fire and smolder when the wind is strong. In this novel, the central characters are members of the Novak family. Stanley Novak and his bride, Rose, a rare Italian living on “Polish Hill,” as the company houses the residents occupy are called in this part of town, have five children, ranging from George, who is fighting in the Pacific as the book begins, to Lucy, an infant. The action is set in motion as Stanley dies in the first chapter, from a sudden heart attack at 54. The mines are rough on the men’s bodies: those that don’t die young tend to be hobbled from years of crouching in tight, damp spaces. Many have black lung disease.