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The Dollmaker
by Harriette Arnow
bookclub@ket host Bill Goodman and producer Janet Whitaker conducted this interview with Harriette Arnow scholar Sandra Ballard, associate professor of English at Carson-Newman College, Tennessee, on February 2, 2000.

Bill Goodman: Let’s begin by just asking about some of the things that we have talked about—the unusual nature of The Dollmaker. We’ve read so much about it, and we’ve read other scholarly works, but you have a different sort of feel about the unusual nature of The Dollmaker.

Sandra Ballard: Well, I think it is a novel that records, in a way that no other American novelist does, what happened to the people who stayed home during World War II or those who migrated out of southern Appalachia to work in the big northern industrial centers during the war.

Bill: Talk a little more about that. What about the people that she wrote of who did stay home?

Sandra: She expresses it in several ways, but it seems to be a recurrent theme in her fiction that she cares about the ones who got left behind, the ones who got lost or died along the way. I think she documents lives that are noble and important, though they don’t get recorded in history books, except in statistics. I mean, if Harriette Arnow writes about a war—as she does in The Kentucky Trace, her novel set during the American Revolution—she is not going to write about the generals and the people who get their names recorded. She writes about the families like Gertie Nevels’ family and what happened to them during World War II.

Bill: How close did you get to Gertie Nevels?

Sandra: Oh, she is still moving around in my head [laughs]. I don’t think anybody who reads this book can forget her.

Bill: In what way?

Sandra: Well, you love her, and you want her to speak up. You see how strong she is physically, how capable she is, how independent she is, and you admire her. I think most readers admire her for the kind of mother she is—she recognizes each of her children is a unique individual—and at the same time, she can’t break out of the patriarchal culture she lives in. She can’t stand up to her mother. She can’t tell her husband, “I have enough money to buy us a farm.” She thinks he will use the money for something else. She is this secretive, non-communicative woman who has a very rich life on a lot of levels, and I think a lot of people can identify with that and with people who are like that.

Bill: How much do you think Harriette Arnow called on people that she knew in Kentucky when she was growing up or people that she had met, even in her adult life? How much do you know of that?

Sandra: She paid attention to people. I think that she listened to what people said at stock auctions and at general stores and just in everyday life, so she gets the dialect right. I think she understands the things she observed in everyday life in Kentucky and that she documents really well a time in Kentucky history and in American history that’s gone now. But as for individuals being the inspiration for various characters ... I think her characters are kind of conglomerates. For some of her characters, she takes different qualities from different people that she would have known.

Janet Whitaker: Sandy, a couple of things: one, the portrayal of Gertie and her strength. Do you think that Harriette was influenced some by what would have been typical of a woman, coming particularly from that area, at that time? Not only the physical strength and the intelligence and ability, but the fear or the little bit of distrust, you know—would that have been typical for people maybe coming from that isolated area? Or was it that just in general a woman didn’t take that kind of initiative?

Sandra: Gertie certainly is a strong character. Let me think about what you are asking here. You are asking if Harriette Arnow knew other women like Gertie?

Janet: Yeah, and I wonder if she was portraying Gertie as how she would view a synopsis of women from that area.

Sandra: Well, maybe so. She really admired women who did on a daily basis what it was really hard for her to do when she lived on a farm. When she and her husband were newly married, they bought a farm in rural Kentucky—in Keno, Kentucky—and lived there for five years. They thought they would be subsistence farmers and writers. Her husband, Harold, was also a writer who had been a newspaper man in Chicago, and they had both lived in Cincinnati. They had this dream of living on a farm and being writers. She later said she had no idea how much time it would take just to subsist—to live in a place where you had to haul every bit of water from a spring, and haul in every bit of coal and cut wood to keep the fires going, to can the food that you needed to get through the winter, to take care of the animals.

She said they didn’t have any time left for writing, and precious little time for reading, while they lived on that farm. But she saw women all around her who were canning and preserving and taking care of households and children, and she really admired them because she knew firsthand how exhausting all that work was. She said when she went to Detroit—she and her husband and family actually made that journey—and lived in wartime housing in Detroit, she said she was thrilled to turn on the tap and have water and have indoor plumbing and a stove so that all you had to do was light the gas and it came on. But she wondered how women who hadn’t lived with those modern conveniences would manage. Out of that thinking and wondering, she said, came the character of Gertie Nevels.

Bill: Now, Professor Ballard, this novel The Dollmaker is one of a trilogy. Tell us about the trilogy and if she had the idea from the beginning to write all three and some of the things that go into that thinking.

Sandra: After her first novel, she envisioned, I think, that she would write these novels that fit together. Mountain Path was her very first novel. It came out in 1936, and she wanted to call it “Path,” but her editors convinced her that “Mountain Path” would be a more fitting title. Then when she wrote Hunter’s Horn, she thought the title should be “End of the Gravel” because gravel roads were beginning to come into the mountains. By the time she wrote The Dollmaker, she thought it should be called “Highway” because what she was writing up until then had been an unwritten story in American literature: the story of hill people from southern Appalachia and their migration to northern industrial centers.

This kind of wartime migration from the mountains hadn’t been recorded in our fiction. And with the coming of “progress” and roads to the communities that had been isolated, she saw more loss. It was a one-way thing: People were going out but not coming back to live. So she saw those novels as pretty much being set in the same southcentral part of Kentucky and as continuations of each other. If you look closely at The Dollmaker, you’ll see the woman who runs the post office calling out Nunn Ballew’s name, for instance, and somebody says “Oh, he’s moved off.” And he was one of the main characters in Hunter’s Horn, the previous novel.

Bill: And what about another one? I am thinking of another novel that a member of our book club mentioned this morning ...

Janet: Oh.

Bill: ... that he really thought was more of a sequel to The Dollmaker. And is that called The Weedkiller’s Daughter?

Sandra: Weedkiller’s Daughter, yes. The Weedkiller’s Daughter is one that hasn’t gotten very much critical attention, and I think maybe it’s because it’s the only one that is set outside of the mountains. It is set in Detroit. It came out in 1970, but it’s a real ’60s novel, with a young protagonist who is a teenage girl, and she’s got an obnoxious father who wants to spew weed killer on everything. It’s about her friends in Detroit and her growing environmental and political awareness. There is a character in The Weedkiller’s Daughter named “The Primitive,” and that character at one point is called Mrs. Nevels. I mean, you realize [laughs] that’s where Gertie went. You know she is living on the edge of Detroit on a farm, where she makes wine and has a big garden.

Bill: So what’s the proper term for four novels?

[Everyone laughs]

Bill: Or is it a sequel? I’m not exactly sure.

Sandra: We will have to look that up.

Bill: Uh huh. So is, in fact, Weedkiller’s Daughter a fourth part of this writing?

Sandra: I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t continue with the same community. The teenage girl, Susie, in Weedkiller’s Daughter, is not from Kentucky. And in the first three—and even in the most recent to be published, Between the Flowers—all the characters are of the same community in Kentucky.

Bill: And finally, Professor Ballard, from the process of writing and what you know of Harriette Arnow from interviewing her and reading so much about her, can you describe the way she might have sat down at the desk with pen and paper? Or I think I read that she did use a typewriter?

Sandra: Uh huh. She used a manual typewriter.

Bill: And that whole process that you sort of know that she went through?

Sandra: She talks about it in a really wonderful interview on the Appalshop film that Herb E. Smith has made about her. It’s called Harriette Simpson Arnow. In that film she talks about her process as being one that begins with composition books. She didn’t call them that, but they’re spiral wire-bound composition books. She wrote by hand, usually with a pencil. And she would just write scene after scene in these composition books until she filled one up. If you go to the archives at the University of Kentucky—the Special Collections—you can see these little notebooks. When she filled one up, she would type them, and sometimes her husband would help her—he could read her handwriting—and these typed pages became her working draft. And if you look at those typescripts, you’ll see that she’d X out paragraphs and pages. She’d put big parentheses in the margins sometimes and write the words “In” or “Out” to indicate, you know, where she was going to make cuts or move parts. And then from those typescripts, she would go through many, many revisions.

When I teach The Dollmaker, my students sometimes complain. They love the book ultimately, but they complain that it is 600 pages long. And it is a long novel, but I tell them to remember that she cut the first hundred pages of The Dollmaker so she could begin with that really dramatic scene with Gertie on the mule taking Amos to the doctor.

Bill: Professor Ballard, she has really become a part of your life.

Sandra: Yes [laughs]. I am working on a biography about Harriette Arnow, and I’ve been doing this for some time. Her family has been really generous to me. They have consented to interviews, and my circle of contacts just keeps on expanding until I’m at the point where I feel like I know more about her family than I know about mine.

Bill: Thank you so much for sharing with all of our viewers and web site visitors your life with Harriette Arnow.

Sandra: I am so happy that your book club is studying her, and I hope they will look for her other books after they read The Dollmaker.


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