The Dollmaker by Hariette Simpson Arnow
The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow was first published in nineteen fifty-four. It is a novel about a displaced family from Kentucky during World War II. They have had to move to Detroit Michigan so that the father can make a living working in a factory making war materials. This novel is a masterpiece because it captures the reality of so many people living in rural Appalachia at the time. The novel has multiple themes and levels so that it can be an entertaining piece as well as provide many insights into the American Dream. The first part of the thirty-nine chapter book is a masterpiece in character development as well as establishing the two settings of the story.
The first part of the setting is in South Eastern Kentucky during World War II. All of the members of the Nevel family are introduced as well as their distant relatives and neighbors. The first chapter initiates the reader to the harsh reality of the lives of the American poor, and the tone of hardship is set for the rest of the book. Gertie, the novel’s protagonist, has to perform a tracheotomy on her young son while fighting for a ride with two soldiers to an incompetent doctor. From the beginning, there is a non acceptance of the Appalachian families that will progress throughout the story. This beginning sets the stage for family whose lives will be filled with heartaches and setbacks for the rest of the story and their lives.
There is a major conflict introduced early on in the novel between Gertie , her husband, and the rest of her family. Gertie and her oldest son, Reuben are tied to the land of the mountains. Their roots are as deep in the soil as the huge oak trees that have stood for centuries. Clovis, Gertie’s mother, and the rest of her children want the family to have what they are convinced is a better life in the city of Detroit. This was a reality during the War and even for several decades afterward. There were just no jobs in that area, and to “make it” in the world, many families had to leave their homes and families to survive. Clovis, Gertie’s husband, is shown to be a good man who just has a different goal, or dream for his life than his wife. They are both good people who are just hopelessly mismatched in a time when couples stayed together. Because of the time period and Gerties lack of education, she is duty bound to follow her husband, and when he tricks her and ends up in Detroit, there is nothing that she can do but follow him.
There is an immense amount of time spent on the description of the mountains of Kentucky. This is done so that the reader can understand how it is that a woman could be so in love with a piece of land and the simple lifestyle that it gives. The neighbors are shown to be people who care about one another and all have the others interest at heart. It is true that the children have no school, but they are intelligent about the ways of the farm and wilderness.
From the train ride to Detroit to the settling in the company house, there is nothing good about the transition. People make fun of them and there is nothing but gray and cold. This symbolizes the lack of life in the lives of the displaced families. The Nevels now have to learn a whole new life style. It is as if they are from another country whose culture is completely different. While everything about the city is telling Gertie she is wrong about her way of life, she just gets more and more determined to preserve her culture and her art which is wood carving.
The first section of The Dollmaker, while depressing at best, is a lesson that one must fight for what he/she believes. It also opens the eyes of the reader, if not from Appalachia, to a world that is right in his/her own country, but has been negatively represented in the media. The story is set during World War II, yet it tackles the universal theme of the displacement of families that is still true today.
How would the novel have been different if Gertie had shared with her husband about the money that she had saved?