The Dollmaker Part II by Harriette Simpson Arnow: A Commentary
The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow is a novel about a Kentucky Appalachian family that gets displaced to Detroit, Michigan during World War II. The first half of the novel deals with the contrast of the two settings of the novel, the development of the major characters, and the introduction of the conflict. The Nevels family has to move from their rural culture to a major city so that the father can get a job making material for the war effort. Once they are there, they are not accepted and are unfamiliar with this new way of life.
Gertie Nevels, the protagonist, and two of her children, Cassie and Reuben, do not fit into the new culture. Not only are they not accepted, they do not try because they cannot understand what is wrong with their culture. Clovis, Gertie’s husband, and the other three children settle into their new lives with no trouble. In America there are many different areas that people can choose to live, and cultures that they can choose to belong. However, Clovis does not understand that he has robbed his wife and two of his children of their choice. He does not do this intentionally. Instead, he has been conditioned to think that whatever a man wants, then his wife and children will willingly want the same thing.
During the second half of the novel there are more characters introduced and all seem to be as unhappy and displaced as the Nevels. The Daly’s are extremely prejudiced against the Nevels and any person from the hills of Kentucky and they are determined to make the lives of the other tenants of the company houses miserable. Whit and Sophronie Meanwell and their children, Max and Victor, and Mr. Skyros are the characters who bond with the Nevels. One thing that stands out in The Dollmaker is that when individuals feel that they do not belong, they tend to bond with others, even if they ordinarily would not have been their type, who experience the same feelings.
The theme of loss grows much stronger during the second half of The Dollmaker. Not only have Gertie, Cassie, and Reuben lost their hopes and dreams of living back in Kentucky and owning their own farm, but they also loose their family relationship. Reuben finally runs away to go back to his home. Then tragedy strikes the family when Cassie is killed by a train because Clovis made her give up her imaginary friend which was her link to her past. Through it all, what is left of the family perseveres.
The only thing that enables Gertie to keep her sanity through her tragic life is her art of woodcarving. It is through art and the she can remain true to her roots, and express herself as an artist. It is the one thing that no one can take from her. Clovis tries to change her work and that is when Gertie finally stands up to him. So it is her art that makes her strong. It is also through her art that in the end of The Dollmaker that Gertie is able to sustain her family. She must sacrifice the Christ figure that has been her masterpiece in the making, for the wood. In her search for the face of Christ, she has survived, displacement, tauntings, one child leaving her, and the death of a child. She then gives it up because there was no face. She realizes that his face is the face of the people of the world.
There is no happy ending for the novel. Unlike the nineteen eighty-four movie, the Nevels do not go home to Kentucky. Instead, Arnow leaves them in Detroit where they will always be outsiders. This tragic book is an insight into a country that is supposed to be a melting pot of cultures, but has fallen incredibly short of that idea.
With everything that happened in the novel, can the Nevels ever really go home?