A good novel makes me happy. The Dollmaker, written by Harriette Arnow and published in 1954, makes me very happy.
Gertie Nevels is a woman I came to love and admire in the course of rereading the novel – in the same way I came to love Soames in The Forsyte Saga. I didn’t want Soames to die, after six novels, nor did I want Gertie’s story to end, after 549 pages.
Described as big and ugly, Gertie lives in Ballew, Kentucky. “My country is Kentucky,” she says, after having left it. Gertie is man-sized, physically strong, with long dark hair pulled back in a bun. She travels always with two things: a knife, with which she “whittles” and, in the lining of the old coat she wears everywhere, a hidden hoard of money, painfully saved over the fifteen years of her marriage, and the birth of her five children.
It’s the 1940s, during World War II, and her husband, Clovis, is about to leave for either active service or factory work in Detroit. Clovis is a mechanic, as skilled with machinery as is Gertie with wood carving, but completely unaware of the artistry of his wife’s “whittlen,” even though he gets angry when Gertie, who hates machinery, calls his work “tinkeren.”
Gertie’s mother, a terrifying woman, hypochondriac and religious fanatic, is also ignorant of Gertie’s gifts – as an artist, a mother, a farmer and homemaker. Only Gertie’s father, a farmer and woodcarver, empathizes with her. But he is, like his daughter, helpless in the face of his wife’s dominance.
Gertie is a woman who is completely at home in her environment. Her dream is to buy a house and property, so that she and her family no longer need to pay rent, which in their case is one half of their crop. To that end, she has saved, secretly, every dollar she has hidden away in her coat. After Clovis leaves for his war work, Gertie, with her treasure of more than five hundred dollars, buys her dream – the Tipton Place, a big log house surrounded by rich, fertile acres.
But before the deed to the Tipton Place can be recorded in her name, Gertie’s mother shames her into joining Clovis in Detroit, where he has been assigned factory work. Her money is returned. She and her children begin the bitter, tragically misdirected adaptation and assimilation necessary to survive in what is, to Gertie, an alien environment.
Here’s how Arnow describes Gertie early in the novel, gathering water at a spring:
. . . she squatted by the pool and dipped the bucket in, then lifted it and drank easily and soundlessly from the great thick rim as others might have sipped from a china cup. The water, cold with faint tastes of earth and iron and moss and the roots of trees, was like other drinks from other springs, the first step upward in the long stairs of the day; everything before it, was night; everything after, day.
Here’s how Arnow describes Gertie in the cramped, shed-like, multi-family project built for factory workers at the ironically named “18911 Merry Hill”:
The steamy, nasty smell of the drying, half-rotten, re-used wood mingled with the gas smell, the chlorine water smell, the supper-getting smell, and became one smell, a stink telling her it was the time of day she had learned to hate most. The time she had loved back home, the ending when the day was below her.
Gertie has two things to sustain her: her children and her carving, which, in her modesty, she persists in calling “whittlen.” Her masterpiece, which she ships by mail to Detroit and works on intermittently, is a massive block of wild cherry wood that is slowly, as she works on it in her spare time, revealing itself as a Biblical figure, by turns Christ-like and Judas-like. The symbolic center of the novel, the figure is faceless but otherwise beautifully rendered, with its long hair, sweeping robe, and uplifted hands.
Late in the novel, Arnow describes Gertie’s work on the figure,:
Gradually the man in the wood brought some calmness to her; he was alive; the hands, the head, even the face were there; she had only to pull the curtain of wood away, and the eyes would look down at her. They would hold no quarreling, no scolding, no questions. Even long ago, when only the top of the head was out of the wood, below it had seemed a being who understood. . . .
But understanding is not a quality Gertie finds in her new life in Detroit. Frustrated, stymied in her efforts to save money so that she and her family can escape the intolerable conditions around her, she must, finally, learn to “adapt,” as her children have adapted, as most of the families living at Merry Hill come to adapt.
Max, one of Gertie’s neighbors at the project, a young woman who periodically demands of Gertie, “Gimme a dream,” “I gotta have a dream,” manages to escape the project. But Gertie herself is left with no escape, and no dream to sustain her.