The Dollmaker: Why You Should Have Read This Book Long Before Now

The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

Scribner: New York. 1954, 1983. First Scribner trade paperback edition June 2009.

If you haven’t heard of The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow, blame William Faulkner. Apparently, 1954 was his year to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel A Fable—not even his most famous work. The Dollmaker competed for those prizes that same year. If it had won, it very well might have become standard reading for high school juniors learning U.S. History or for American Studies majors or at least for earnest English majors across this land. In my opinion, long before you read my review here, every teacher you’ve ever had should have told you to read this book.

Why? Because The Dollmaker is about everything. It is the quintessential Great American Novel.

It’s about rural America and love for the land. It’s about World War II and how it robbed communities, especially rural ones, of all the men, leaving them without farmhands, teachers, drivers, doctors, mechanics. It’s about the transit of rural culture to cities for factory work and how that transition strangled the self-sufficiency and uniqueness out of the people who had to move. It’s about family and caring for your own against phenomenal losses. It’s about community, in all its savagery and splendor. It’s about early unions and the fight for fair labor practices. It’s about one powerful woman, emblematic of all powerful women, held back by religious and social custom and her role in the family. It’s about how hard it is for a woman to allow herself to be an artist. It’s about all this and more.

Gertie Nevels is an Appalachian Kentucky farmer descended from generations of farmers. Her family’s land entails on her brother, so she and her husband, Clovis work as tenant farmers, paying their rent in labor and produce. Clovis’ work as a “tinkerer”/mechanic, fixing mostly coal machinery and the odd automobile, adds to their income, but, during the War, all the coal miners are conscripted and the rare car to come into town only brings (mostly bad) news of the War. Gertie dreams of buying land so she and her family can keep the fruits of their labors and get the littlest bit ahead, while freeing her evenings to whittle as much as she pleases. She has this piece of cherry wood, and one day she’ll have time to free the face lurking beneath the grain. When the War takes Clovis, sending him to Detroit to help build equipment for the war effort, though, he wants his family to come with him, and, gradually, the War, or change itself, upends all Gertie’s dreams.

Of all characters I’ve met in literature, Gertie is by far the most vivid. If she walked into the room, I would know her at once. She would be taller than all of the women and most of the men, formidable and ungainly. She would be built for hard work, with chapped hands, sun-and-wind-roughed skin. Her hair would be mussed. She would have a look of concentration and would be in the middle of an important daily task. Short a task important enough, she would busy her hands with her carving, which she saved for rare moments when she’d satisfied every other demand.

The opening scene aptly illustrates the breadth of Gertie’s responsibilities, as well as her virtually unstoppable resilience. She rides her donkey to the roadside to flag down an oncoming car, forcing the military officer at the wheel to stop in order to avoid hitting her. Before he agrees to give her a ride, she says, “‘You can shoot me now er give me an this youngen a lift to th closest doctor.’” Then, when the boy’s about to suffocate from what we later learn is diphtheria, Gertie performs an emergency tracheotomy right there in the back seat, whittling a twig into a tiny pipe in order to let him breathe.

Further proof of Gertie’s self-sufficiency, after years working various tenant farms while Clovis made scattershot money with his “tinkering,” she manages to save enough to buy the Tipton place with money scrimped from her labors around the farm combined with proceeds from the sale of her brother Henley’s livestock, which he bequeathed to her after his death in the War. Having her own place would mean that “[n]ever, never would she have to move again; never see again that weary, sullen look on [her eldest son]’s face that came when they worked together in a field not their own, and he knew that half his sweat went to another man.”

The Tipton place is Gertie’s Paradise. She and her whimsical youngest daughter, Cassie often visit it before Gertie buys it, walking there on their way to other places, sometimes clearing brush or attending to other small chores. Gertie’s idealistic eyes transform the worn-out, passed-by place so that, “[n]ow in the yellow sun the moss shone more gold than green, and over all the roof there was from the quickly melting frost a faint steam rising, so that the dark curled shakes, the spots of moss, the great stone chimney, all seemed bathed in a golden halo and Cassie called that the house had golden windows.”

While Clovis trains for the army and Gertie assumes he’ll soon ship out to fight overseas, she prepares her children for the day the Tipton place will be theirs, telling them, “It’ll be warm in th winter an cool in th summer, an no matter how hard th wind blows that house’ll never shake, an th hard north wind’ull never tetch it.” With the loss of her brother especially, Gertie feels the horror of the War, but also, “[i]t was as if the war and  Henley’s death had been a plan to help set her and her children free so that she might live and be beholden to no man, not even to Clovis.” This would mean Gertie’s liberation from custom and convention, ushering in a social order that recognizes, validates, and thrives on her strengths and skills.

That social order never arrives. Clovis lands in Detroit instead of in battle. He wants his family with him, and the power of custom dictates what happens next. Gertie’s mother reveals Clovis’ wishes to the man who sold her the Tipton Place, and he tells Gertie, “‘I cain’t let a piece a land come atween a woman an her man an her people,’” adding, to bolster Gertie’s spirits, “‘Yer youngens does need schools, an when Clovis is a maken you a good liven you ought to go to him if he wants it thataway.’”

Detroit is no Paradise, and every aspect of the place seems bent on thwarting Gertie. Even Nature seems set against her, when, upon her first arriving, “[t]he wind, as if it had fingers, unbuttoned the new coat that billowed first behind her, then whipped about her legs as if in this place all directions were north.”

Their new home is in a project so recent that even the cab driver who takes them there from the train station has never heard of it. Pulling up in front of “Merry Hill,” “Gertie for the first time really looked at the rows of little shedlike buildings, their low roofs covered with snow, the walls of some strange gray-green stuff that seemed neither brick, wood, nor stone. She had glimpsed them briefly when they turned into the side road, but had never thought of them as homes.”

Inside, her impression of the place does not improve. “The tired, hungry, shivering children looked at Gertie, their eyes asking and expecting of her the warmth and food she had always given,” and, for the first time in her children’s lives, she has no idea what to do next.

Contrasts between Detroit and Gertie’s Paradise persist throughout the book. In summer, “[t]he mosquitoes were bad and so were the flies, and the whole place smelled like a garbage can on a hot day when the collectors are a week overdue.” Even in this setting, though, Gertie craves a connection to the land and ekes from the tenement landscape what loveliness and serenity she can. Despite bugs and odors and heat, she “gathered a bouquet of tall-growing red flowers that grew by an evil-smelling pool of black water, and then she stood a while under the smoke-blighted, cinder-battered leaves of a cottonwood sprout; if she kind of shut her eyes and forgot the smell, it was a little like having a whole tree between her and the sky.”

Uprooted and transplanted, Gertie’s “whittlen” offers her only solace. In the beginning, in her special block of wood, “[t]here was only the top of a head, tilted forward a little, bowed, or maybe only looking down, but plainly someone there, crouching, a secret being hidden in the wood, waiting to rise and shed the wood and be done with the hiding.” As spare and stolen moments allow Gertie to develop the sculpture, she carves her sorrows into it, and “…more than her walks through the alleys among the tumultuous sea of children the man in the wood gave rest and peace from thoughts of the things lost behind her and the things ahead she feared.”

Everyone who witnesses her sculpture’s progress offers an opinion about whose face might be peeking out of the wood. The very Catholic Mrs. Daly sees the Blessed Mary. Gertie’s daughter Cassie sees her trouble-making imaginary friend, Callie Lou. Gertie goes back and forth, sometimes picturing a laughing Jesus, other times Judas, the moment before he returns the pieces of silver.

Everyone admires her work, asks after it. Clearly, Gertie is more artist than whittler. Her hand-carved dolls and toys begin to fetch attention and paying customers. She labors over the work with the focus and care of an artist, but her husband sees opportunity. He and “the tool-and-die man” he befriends soon outfit a jigsaw to cut patterns for dolls and other items so that Gertie may mass-produce her merchandise. Need, demands, expectations once again rub the life out of what Gertie loves.

The power of change drives all the novel’s threads—the importance and dangers of adjusting, what you lose and what you gain. Gertie loses her heritage, the opportunity to thrive on the work of her own hands, the fabric of her family, a feel for her place in it, and even the art of her “whittlen.” What she gains is harder to name. Maybe it’s the dreaded “adjustment” she speaks sharply against when teachers at school seem determined to bend her children to the new, harsher ways of city life.

To say more might spoil the power and surprise of this book for virgin readers. And when every theme could unfold into a dissertation, you have to stop somewhere.

Jody Hobbs Hesler’s debut story collection What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press October 2023, and her novel Without You Here is forthcoming from Flexible Press November 2024. Her other writing appears in Arts & Letters, CRAFT, The Rumpus, [PANK], South 85, and elsewhere.