Sunday, May 5, 2013

News from Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh

News from Heaven is a collection of short stories set in the coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. The setting for an earlier novel by Jennifer Haigh (which I have not read), Bakerton is largely populated by Polish, Italian, and Irish families. The town boomed during the world wars, but then began to decay as the mines closed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Many stories in the book revolve around the two conflicting desires experienced by the young people of Bakerton--the desire to escape and the desire for connection (i.e., to stay). Unfortunately, Haigh seems to suggest that no matter which route you choose. Sandy escapes to Las Vegas and then California-but he never manages to pull himself together to make a decent living. Ray escapes and becomes a successful oilman in Texas, but he is estranged from his sons and feels responsible for his brother's death. Despite being raped as a girl and the death of her childhood friend in the war, Viola stays, becoming a teacher, seeing her students struggle (one of her favorite students is beaten by homophobes) and then go off to war. Star quarterback Mitch Stanek escapes to Florida State University, but drops out after one semester--he managed to graduate from high school without reading. He does well as a union miner, but his life begins to fall apart when the mines close.

The stories are well-written, and individually some of them are quite moving. Taken together, though, the stories become depressing.  And, I must admit, they activate one of my prejudices. Having grown up on farms near small towns in the Midwest, I resent depictions of small towns as miserable, constricted places. Is there no joy in small towns?  Embarrassingly, my resentment doesn't extend to such depictions of Southern towns (see my recent review of The Next Time You See Me). I need to work on that!

Favorite passage:
She greeted all presents this way--you shouldn't have--no matter how worthy the occasion or how trifling the gift. It was a habit born of embarrassment. No gift--even one she'd always wished for--was worth drawing attention to herself.

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