Harriette Simpson Arnow: “The Dollmaker”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Chances are you may have seen the Jane Fonda made-for-TV adaptation of Harriette Simpson Arnow’s 1954 novel, The Dollmaker. It’s a decent adaptation, as far as made-for-TV movies go. But if you haven’t read the novel itself, you’re missing out on an often-overlooked masterpiece of American literature.

Arnow brings to vivid life what singer-songwriter Steve Earle dubbed the “Hillbilly Highway,”iconwhat scholars call “Appalachian out-migration” or the “Appalachian diaspora.” (See, for example, my friend Chad Berry’s first book, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles.)

Simply put, many southern Appalachians found they could not survive economically by staying in the mountains, and many of them moved to northern industrialized cities to look for factory work. Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, and other cities became prime destinations for these mountaineers, especially during World War II, when they could get jobs in the defense industry. (You may also recall an earlier StoryWeb post on bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens and her song “Mama’s Hand,” which tells of leaving home in West Virginia to seek work in Baltimore.)

Arnow’s heroine, Gertie Nevels, hails from the hills of eastern Kentucky. The novel opens with a scene in which Gertie, desperate to get her sick child to a doctor, flags down a car on the road near her house. From this gripping opener all the way through to the end of this long, rich novel, Gertie faces one heart-wrenching ordeal after another.

Not long after the child survives, Gertie and her husband make the difficult decision to leave their Kentucky home to move to Detroit, where relatives and friends have found work in the factories. They set up housekeeping in a company house – though “house” is too lofty a word for the structure they find themselves living in. A row house of sorts, the thin walls barely give them any privacy from their neighbors, and the “home” is situated in an industrialized setting. Cut off from the natural world they had loved so well in Kentucky, they and their five children are forced to pursue their lives in a barren, mechanized world. It will lead to heartbreak for all of them, especially Gertie.

I don’t want to give away the story, but I can share a few teasers. Gertie is a dollmaker, excelling at the traditional craft of the mountains. Given her artistic sensibilities, it comes as no surprise when she goes one step further and begins to carve a beautiful block of wood. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what Gertie discovers in that block of wood.

The Dollmaker is a gripping, if emotionally difficult, novel to read. Arnow pulls no punches in her depiction of the Nevels’s life in Detroit, and her commentary about Appalachian out-migration is sad indeed. But the book is so well written and so compelling that it’s worth the tears you’ll shed reading it.

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Watch:Watch this five-minute clip from the opening of the TV adaptation of The Dollmaker, starring Jane Fonda as Gertie Nevels. (And if you want to read the opening chapter on which this scene is based, visit this page and click on “Read an Excerpt.”) You might also want to watch a young Steve Earle sing “Hillbilly Highway” on “Austin City Limits.”

Image credit: Harriette Simpson Arnow, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harriette_Simpson_Arnow.jpg