Last year, Jennifer Haigh impressed readers with her brilliant debut, Mrs. Kimble. With her second novel, Haigh does it again differently, but just as well. Baker Towers focuses on an immigrant family from the company coal town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. The mines were not named for Bakerton; Bakerton was named for the mines, Haigh writes. This is an important distinction. It explains the order of things. Her characters at first appear to be stereotypes, but soon display their uniqueness. The mother, Rose, is Italian-American and forever cooking pasta and having babies. Yet she had the courage to marry Stanley and become the only Italian wife living on Polish Hill. Even more unexpected is their quiet, studious daughter Joyce's ardent desire to join the Women's Air Force.
Stanley's untimely death in early 1944 leaves Rose a widow with five children. Georgie, the oldest, is serving in the South Pacific; Lucy, the youngest, is a baby on the hip. In between are Dorothy, Joyce and good-looking little Sandy. How the family manages the life they inherit is the story Haigh tells so compellingly, demonstrating how a small town can both smother people and give them comfort. The female characters in Baker Towers prove especially interesting as they meet the challenges of changing mores. Dorothy finds that her true path has little to do with the straight and narrow; Lucy discovers that education and a career can take her away, but will also serve her well if she decides to go back home. The towers in the title describes tall pillars of smoldering coal. They seem a permanent part of the landscape, yet, in the end, Haigh shows that permanence lies not in the mine, but in the impression made on the rich mix of people who grew up in old Bakerton. Anne Morris writes from Austin, Texas.