Elizabeth Sulzby's Reviews > Baker Towers

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
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's review
Sep 26, 2011

really liked it

Preface: I did NOT like Mrs. Kimble and am surprised that it was award-winning.

I DO like Baker Towers and am particularly impressed that Ms. Haigh (pronounced like The Hague in the Netherlands, the book advises) wrote about a coal mining community in Pennsylvania. The title refers to the towers build of leftover trash coal, which in the Southern coal mining country I grew up in, we called "clinkers." As she described in the book, these "towers" of leftovers could spring into flame and burn almost endlessly.

Haigh's placement of key characters in this small town and how many of them went to the "big cities" was very convincing. Her details throughout were convincing, except for referring to coal mining houses as having "furnaces." Later in the book, the description fit that of the "Warm Morning" type round bellied stove that could sit in a given room in such a house and that was "banked" by ashes over the burned down coal at night, "shook up" in the morning and enlivened with new coal. Some of the characters that seemed set to escape the coal mining country stayed there and others, not necessarily so well prepared, went to the "outside."

This book does not deal in very much detail about the role of unions in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama and other coal mining states. Its focus is on families and the role of individuals within families. As the book progresses, we see Baker Towers sinking slowly as other mining sites become more central because of having new coal to be mined.

While Haigh covers coal mining communities fairly well, she moves her stories along with employment in the cities, increased pay and jobs for women while the men were at war, and with the young men returning from the war. The oddest part of the main family was a fairly "get-by guy" who married a woman from a very rich family and ended up consumed by that family for a great deal of his life. Finally, though, his son comes to the coal mining town to live and, thus, the father comes back as well, to re-make some connections and lost others. The drama of the father's return is his re-acquaintance with the girl he was "engaged" to in the coal mining town whom he "dumped" while meeting women associated with the war, such as nurses, hospitality women, and the sisters of fellow soldiers.

I found this book very satisfying and very amazing to have come from such a young writer without an embedding in "coal mining country." There is a good bit of romanticizing of the "stay homers" and the "venturers into the world." Also there was a set up of expectations for scholarly characters, especially one young women, who dropped their educations to return to the expectations of "home."

P.S. "There is no such thing as clean coal." And, if you are interested, read the history of Massey Coal. There IS such a thing as mountain top removal to get at coal by destroying the land, the waters, and the people's homes. And companies such as Massey who remove mountain tops leave men to die underground or their remains to stay underground. With cadavers, mountain top removal would regain those remains for the grieving families--but that's not an endorsement of mountain top removal by this reviewer. It's just an anguished critique of the heartless companies that ravish our hills and mountains, creeks and rivers, for "black gold" with all its inefficiencies and pollutions. Where I grew up, as in other parts of coal mining country, homes sink into sinkholes bored beneath them. One has to ask whether or not "mineral-rights come with the land" or whether one is buying (or renting) a house that has boreholes beneath it.

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