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February2000
The Dollmaker
by Harriette Arnow

In this month's selection, The Dollmaker, author Harriette Arnow tells the story of a Kentucky mountain family that makes the move from their homeland to industrial Detroit during the closing days of World War II. The main character, Gertie Nevels, is the mother of five children who must endure all the sufferings of dislocation. A strongly felt and sometimes brutal novel, Arnow's achievement is in showing a simple woman who overcomes tragedy and heartbreak and perseveres through it all. The bookclub starts now.

Bill:
Obviously Gertie is a strong character from the beginning but soon after that even though she establishes herself quite early as a dominant member of the family in Kentucky she begins to lose some of that even before they go to Detroit.

Terry:
That is almost hard to believe, isn't it? That you start out with that the scene on the road with the mule and the sick child and she's completely in command even of a commander and hijacks a military vehicle -- all of these things. And she is so strong and then she turns right around and does exactly what's expected of her. And it just shocked me. That she was willing to do that.

Jonathan:
Well it happened gradually didn't it. So I wasn't shocked because in a sense she was stripped of her power bit by bit over a period of six hundred pages to the final end where she almost gives away her talent as a carver when she allows her carving in the works to be split up. It's almost as if bit by bit she gives away a little piece of herself throughout the novel and I think that in each case you can see why she is doing it.

You can see the kind of pressure she is under which makes her make these decisions. For instance she had good ambitions to buy the land in Kentucky -- the Tipton place. She had some savings; she was going to buy this piece of land, and she was persuaded by her mother at to go to Detroit to follow her husband who has work in a factory there. Why? Because it would seem to be just against the spirit of the family to remain apart from him and so on. And then when she got there, she saw the lady next door walking about in her nightgown and she said oh Detroit is full of fast women. I'm glad I'm up here with my man to make sure nothing happens. And so you can see why she makes the decisions she makes. I think and that is one of the skills of the novelist. She shows the pressure that the character is under which then explains why she does it.

Terry:
Yeah she does disintegrate over the course of the novel.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Terry:
And she loses apparently a lot of her self-esteem or at least it is very sorely tested. But there is that sudden moment where she has all of the money she needs, she has already made the deal to buy the land, she's already told her kids that they are going to buy the land, she's been over and walked and has looked at the trees, and then her mother just tells her she must go and she accedes to that. And it struck me as supremely ironic because really she accepts and follows what would be the traditional way of life and it leads her to a way of life that is not at all within her tradition.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
I think that's the first hint that we get when she has the confrontation with her mother about the Tipton place. I think then secondarily to that is when Clovis her husband signs up to go to fight in World War II, and then she finds out that he didn't actually make it to World War II. He has gone to Detroit and that's again the conflict with her mother about doing the traditional thing about following the husband and staying together as a family unit and raising the children together and all of that. But some extraordinary things happen even on the train. I think you begin to get some indications of Gertie and the family getting out in the world for the very first time and what a challenge and a struggle it's going to be for all of them in Detroit.

Wilma:
I wanted to go back to something Terry was saying about the first scene and how much Gertie was in control. And she actually symbolically stops the industrialized society in the symbol of a car and then also the military, war actually, because you have military people in the car and it's of course ironic and a great juxtaposition later I mean. She saves her child that time. That the next time when she's up against the same forces the industrialized society and because the train is carrying military equipment she's not able to stop. Even the war.

Terry:
It's not on her turf.

Wilma:
And it's not on her turf and she's no longer able to stop it. So I think those are two really interesting scenes where she is able at one time able to stop something extraordinary to save one child, and the next time she's beyond the power that she once had.

Bill:
Well, she is up against this immovable force, if you will, in the industrialized world, and I think it was also said about fighting capitalism to a degree. She had been such a self sustaining person in Kentucky and all at once she is thrown into the throes of having to barter and to buy and ...

Terry:
She knew how to grow food, but she couldn't buy it intelligently.

Bill:
Or she couldn't cook it on a new gas stove.

Terry:
Right.

Bill:
She couldn't have this relationship. She could work with a coal box or with a cellar, but she couldn't come to grips with Icy Heart which she called the icebox that they bought -- the refrigerator that they bought. So all of these things were on top of her -- the pulling back and forth of the children that I thought was so interesting and a lot of unique characterizations in all the kids.

Wilma:
Oh yes.

Bill:
Different.

Wilma:
And some of them are going to survive the change and some aren't, and of course one of the big things is how the individual is supposed to fit into an industrialized society or change of any type. It doesn't even have to be the industrialized society. It's a type of change and, of course, two of her children actually don't make it.

One runs away and, of course, the other one is killed in the novel. But two of her children are going to make it and the interesting thing is that both Enoch and Clytie have not only learned to adjust, but they have also learned in some way to keep their individuality, and they are both entrepreneurs in a way. Certainly Enoch is and then also Clytie has her own business and is able to buy her school clothes. Her own business being baby-sitting; the school clothes she wants. So they are very much in the theme at the end of the novel when Mrs. Anderson comes back and says business -- it's now business that is the important word for the day. Already Enoch is a businessman already he is an entrepreneur. He has even gotten his mother and Victor to build a fence for him.

Terry:
One of the hypotheticals I asked myself when I finished and I was still wrestling with it is if Enoch had succeeded in taking the block of wood and turning it into a franchise of toy stores Toys is Us'n or something.

(everyone laughs)

Terry:
Like they made lots and lots of money and Clytie, Clovis and Gertie had all retired to Florida would that lessen the tragedy of the novel.

Bill:
Well that...

Terry:
Or are we at that point just haggling over price.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
Well, you know it's funny because connected to that when you were talking about how you sound very upbeat. You know Clytie and Enoch are going to survive. They are entering a market economy. They are learning how to be northern business people and that's good, right?

The whole novel is sort of steeped in this sense of loss. Even as they survive there is this sense of loss at the same time so it's always very ambiguous. I think any victory, any triumph is very ambiguous because it's shadowed by a loss.

Bill:
Soon offset by tragedy.

Jonathan:
And the tragedy of Cassie getting killed I think really casts a shadow over the last half of the book. The small ones are going to get over it, but not the mother. And then the question of the husband becoming a murderer. I mean this was an enormously rich part of the novel I think. And when we see Gertie responding to the knowledge that her husband has killed somebody, but it isn't really knowledge because she hasn't admitted to herself yet. And I think that one of the interesting things about Gertie, I mean she is the most fully drawn character in the novel but in some parts of the novel we see her struggling with trying not to know something that all the evidence is suggesting she should know. As for instance if I could just read this when she's got the supposed murder weapon she is running it under the water and she half expects to find blood in the water and she does see it but she pretends she doesn't see it. And I think that is very skillful. It says, "the knife had gone deeply some blood had got onto the handle. No it wasn't blood the man's blood on her knife. She turned the water on full force it frothed and bubbled white pure white there was no stain at all why should she think such things. " And we see her struggling with herself against the face of the evidence.

Bill:
So you are convinced that Clovis did kill...

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
... the nephew of Joe, the vegetable man.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Bill:
That's uh huh.

Jonathan:
Oh yes, I think he definitely did.

Bill:
Even though later on he said that he had gone to California.

Wilma:
California is an euphemism for (laughs)

Terry:
It's interesting that on the Web site one of the essays, might be a student essay, summarizes or begins the summary of the book by saying the main character is Gertie, a woman from eastern Kentucky who has trouble making decisions.

(everyone laughs)

Terry:
I thought that.

Bill:
Terry, you mentioned the Web site. And for all of you and those interested in the bookclub at KET Web site is phenomenal with the amount of information and studies and debate on this. So I'd go there, click on and learn more and get involved in that. One of the other aspects that is brought up in one of the essays on the Web site is Gertie and Judas. In this Judas theme all the way through. Didn't you think that was an interesting part of the novel. Let's talk a little bit about that and also the Jesus aspect of the block of wood and who you think might have ended up on that block of wood in the face at the very end.

Terry:
Well, it comes back to what Jonathan was saying about the ambiguity of the novel, and it struck me -- I read this first when I was a younger man some decades ago. And at the time I interpreted it as a really great loss and tragedy as it is in most of the essays that are written about it. Then I used that as part of the sort of garden wall that I built around this idealized state of Kentucky. I stayed here in the state of Kentucky, but I read it again now on in years maybe in more mature or little more jaded and this time when I read it, I was able to envision Arnow kind of gazing down from my bookshelf and looking at me and going grow up because really it's hard to tell at the end of the novel whether she has sacrificed her soul or triumphed.

Bill:
Well, that is interesting.

Jonathan:
Or both.

Terry:
Or both.

Bill:
Or both but you know you said a few minutes ago, Jonathan, that this was sort of the final giving up part of all of this. Quite frankly I thought it could possibly be -- and we just don't know this -- the turning point.

Jonathan:
Oh yes yes.

Bill:
For their family and their life there. We obviously know that at least they're not leaving for Kentucky the next day. I saw that as a symbolic effort to cast away all the demons and the tragedy of the past.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
And and so.

Jonathan:
Well if I could just come in I think it is an effort and yeah you can see it as a moment of exorcism sort of ghosts of the past.

Bill:
Uh huh yeah.

Jonathan:
Unfortunately, if it is true that her husband has murdered this man then and if it is true that she is not able to talk to her husband about it and her husband is not able to talk to her about it and if it is true that it is all covered up, then in a sense they are living a lie. They can't escape the past because the past is a murdered man who is in their conscious. And you know in a sense it ends -- I mean it makes it sound like a very final ending, but actually we wonder really what's going to happen next. I mean is there going to be a police investigation for instance? I don't know.

Bill:
What would the sequel have been.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Dava:
Well, I was going to say maybe the end is not so much a triumph but with her chopping up the block of wood maybe she is ready to face her reality. I think a theme that runs through this book is the luxury of dreams and the luxury of daydreaming and back in Kentucky she had time and she had hopes and you have Cassie with her imaginary friend Callie Lou. Cassie dies; Callie Lou is no longer there, and Gertie can't have this imaginary life she wants to lead. She can't have these imaginary hopes of wanting to go back to Kentucky. She has no money and maybe in twenty years she'll be there, but maybe she is ready to say this is my life. Now what am I going to do?

Jonathan:
Yeah, and what her life will entail is making these dolls with the jig saw that her husband had to arrange with the tool and die man from the factory. She's going to start making factory cookie cutter sculptures of dolls and you just kind of imagine that's not going to satisfy this character. That's all you know I mean. You are saying maybe it is exorcising the ghosts of the past, but at the end of the day I feel that this was satisfying to a carving you know quickly. And she is certainly losing something when she gives that up.

Terry:
But even so to agree with what you are saying back home the whittling was foolishness.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
Uh huh

Terry:
It was only when she got to Detroit where there were no hopes or dreams that this foolishness became valuable enough that she could sell it and support her family.

Jonathan:
It was valuable foolishness back home; it was an end in itself. You know. In Detroit it becomes means to an end of getting money and the Fordism or the industrialization of Detroit has now entered her private life and her own private you know.

Terry:
Right.

Jonathan:
Her fantasy world if you like. I think it's a tragedy that she loses her ability to carve and I think that it's a tragedy that the things carves at the end. I mean I want to come down there you know and you say something definite about it but I see what you mean. The family will survive if she doesn't do that then she will have more time to make dolls and make money and that is good and so that's fine, but we are seeing a character losing something all the same that was valuable to her.

Wilma:
A great many parts of the novel are about sacrifice. You know people have to be sacrificed. One of my favorite chapters -- and all the chapters are almost little short stories in themselves they are wonderfully well done -- but one of my favorite chapters is an early one where the people in Kentucky are all waiting for the mail and they know it's going to come on mule.

Jonathan:
Oh yeah.

Wilma:
Because all of the cars have been disabled for one reason or another and they can't get gas or new tires or whatever so it's coming by mule. So there is this wonderful scene of the people in Kentucky. The community pulling together and helping each other, and everything is wonderful and all at once they hear an automobile and they know it's not going to be the mail. And they know that the only thing coming by automobile would be something from the Red Cross, and it would be bad news. And they know someone is going to be sacrificed or they feel that someone is going to be sacrificed and everybody is there oh not me, not me, you know all at once. They are no longer pulling together; they are individuals and it's almost a relief and even Gertie feels it as a guilt. It's a relief when the Red Cross woman calls out a name because everyone else has been spared at that moment. One person has to be sacrificed. It's very much like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. You are all waiting -- not me not me. As long as somebody is sacrificed; so it's a book of sacrifice.

Jonathan:
Well that is interesting because it gets back to the whole theme of Christ.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
The end didn't have a face on the Christ figure, but in my view she says it could be the face of anybody in my street my alley. So is it therefore, a Christian novel? It's not really arguing a Christian point of view.

Bill:
I think that's arguable just because.

Terry:
I think it's probably broader because early in the novel and I didn't remember this, but I went back and just skipped through the first part of it. When she is back home Callie Lou is the block of wood. As far as Cassie Marie is concerned.

Jonathan:
Yes, yes.

Terry:
So that block of wood with its blank face becomes the screen upon which we can all project what sacred to us or what's important to us.

Jonathan:
An imaginary companion which for the child is Cassie Lou and for Gertie is Jesus Christ who's not an imaginary companion.

Bill:
Or Judas.

Jonathan:
Or Judas.

Terry:
Or Judas.

Bill:
Because she had sympathy for Judas. As a character after knowing that the world at that time came down on him, but she felt that like in the end he had some redeeming qualities about him. In the great tradition of Kentucky writing of great novels across this great country of ours the descriptive passages in this novel. You'll recall these characters long after we have read this.

Wilma:
One passage that I love is when we first look at Sophroni and this is a wonderful passage. "Gertie shoved the outer door open just as a small foot in an open toed high-heeled slipper below a bare ankle hooked itself around the corner and began to pull a dried up puny looking little woman came through the door. A steaming pot in one hand a steaming skillet in the other the arm of the hand that held the pot held together. A bathrobe of some blue silk like material quilted into a design of flowers and embroidered with golden peacocks." And it goes on from there. So I think not only her descriptions of the characters are wonderful and then we know exactly what the home looked like. That it's very specific, the home they lived in too. You know room by room exactly what was happening there, but it's such a bleak outlook.

Bill:
I think I have got a better idea of what was inside than outside though.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
I kept wondering about where the coal shed was. Was it attached to the back, do you think? I mean that was sort of a central place where the kids jumped up on top to throw snowballs from.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
And that sort of thing. I could see sort of the outside and the front almost in motel fashion if you will or somebody else said maybe duplex like conditions because, of course, they had the thin walls that they used and they could hear through and all of that. But there was a smaller alley in either front or back and then the larger alley, but then the fence and the railroad tracks ...

Terry:
You would almost have to draw it out and I got lost just trying to keep up with who was living next to whom. Who was on the other side of which wall.

Bill:
But I think that's an interesting ...

Terry:
But the one thing ...

Bill:
... challenge.

Terry:
The one thing I do think we can count on is that the description was accurate.

Bill:
Oh yes.

Wilma:
Yes.

Terry:
Because Arnow and her family lived in the World War II projects.

Bill:
They did. I thought it was interesting go ahead Jonathan.

Jonathan:
Well, I also struggled a little bit trying to imagine the place at times. The alley -- it seemed as if she spent a lot of time describing the place but sometimes it didn't seem to so clear to me. You know sometimes I got a bit as you say a little lost on that and I don't think it was because I was dozing off at that time although that's possible. But I think the novel is kind of clogged with description and you can go two ways with that. Sometimes I thought well maybe the editor should really have had a firmer hand here and cut it down a little, pared it down a little; and then on the other hand you think well it is a rather confusing world, this new alley that she lives in. It's teeming with life. There are children everywhere. They all have names, but it's rather hard to keep everybody straight. It's hard as a reader to keep all this because apart from the adult characters that she describes in some cases quite well, they then have children and then you know she refers to the children and then you get them mixed up because they are not described so well. I mean okay that's the guy who threw a snowball but that's all you know about him and so sometimes I felt it was a little confusing, but as I said do we decide that this is a flaw in the writing or do we decide that this is an effort to suggest the teeming confusion of the place.

Terry:
the latter, I believe.

Jonathan:
Yeah, okay.

Bill:
Yeah me too. Far be it from any of us to label it a flaw.

Terry:
The fact that she.

Bill:
Although that's fair.

Terry:
She goes on and on and on about it. I'm sure she had her own messages she wanted to get across.

Bill:
Uh huh yeah

Terry:
But she drags it out to five hundred and forty nine or six hundred pages and you really begin to feel like you are lost in these projects.

Bill:
Uh huh well.

Terry:
And you are never going to get out.

Bill:
Well, I remember the first day they went to school. That's one of those passages I won't forget because it seemed like it took them hours to get there because it was already cold and windy and there at times were puddles of water or piles of snow and they were crossing sections of roads where there were crossing guards and Gertie and the children were so afraid. And, of course, the older children wanted to walk ahead and not be with their mother and expecting to see this big marvelous, wonderful schoolhouse with a gymnasium and a cafeteria and it turns out to be very much like their own living conditions. Small and ...

Jonathan:
Couple of shacks.

Dava:
I think this novel really is a tragedy in every sense. I said at the end maybe Gertie is ready to face reality but still that is not a good thing, I don't think. I think it's really nice how on the front of this book. When I first read the book I didn't have the same book cover or same edition. It says a body has got to have something all their own which was firmly what Gertie believed and I think at the end she doesn't have anything. Two of her children are gone, her home is gone, her passion for whittling is now just money. What does she have? And I wish there could be a sequel.

Jonathan:
That's interesting because I think Joyce Carole Oates in her essay at the end says it's a great American novel because it's really about the conflict between wanting to be an individual on one hand which is very American value and on the other hand conforming to society which is also another very American value. And in the end do we see is it as triumph that she conforms or do we see it as a tragedy that she loses her individuality because I think she does lose her individuality. I think you can maybe see it as a good thing that she ends up conforming and, therefore, they will have economic stability, although based on a lie because her husband is a murderer.

(everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
Or on the other hand is it just dreadful that she lost all that individuality and then she's gained the world but lost her soul. And I think that it does ask questions at the end rather than necessarily give you something pat.

Dava:
I think most readers would see it as tragedy because that's so many people these days that's what they want. They want their individuality and it's not something you come by very easily any more especially. Seemed like there used to be a simpler time.

Jonathan:
Not when you work in a factory as is presented here. They present this.

Terry:
We can ...

Jonathan:
Cogwheels in a machine, aren't they.

Terry:
We can take this same migration though from the hills of eastern Kentucky to Detroit and the factory town and up ...

Terry:
... You don't have to go to a different city any more.

Wilma:
If we had always had the concept of the individual over the greater good of the society or the great or the moving forward we would have no progress. So it's always the question the delicate balance, what price progress? How much of the individual do we have give up for us all to move forward.

Bill:
Let me ask another question. Did you think that they were going to go back to Kentucky at the end of the novel?

Dava:
I thought they would.

Jonathan:
No, I didn't think they would because I knew....

 

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