Sunday, February 3, 2013

News from Heaven by Jennifer Haigh

The fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania exists. Anyone who has been to Franklin, Oil City, Mercer, or any number of hamlets and coal towns throughout the Quaker State would recognize it. The Episcopal church two blocks from the Catholic church two blocks from the Baptist church, families made wealthy by coal, out-of-work coal miners not sure what else they can do, land scarred by unscrupulous strip-mining companies, the high school athlete who's the talk of the town: all familiar.

Jennifer Haigh returns to her town of Bakerton with this collection of ten interconnected short stories. The stories meander through the life of the town, jumping from one Bakerton family to another, overlapping here an there. Bakerton's halcyon beginnings are the backdrop for the first story, one about Jewish and Polish immigrants. In the penultimate story of this collection, the Bakerton Borough Council tries to force a descendant of the Baker Family to clean up their property, which borders land that the council hopes to lease to a correctional facility. Through a large cast of characters, whose last names become familiar by the end of the book, Haigh portrays the decline--but not the death--of a coal town. These are uniquely American stories.

Haigh is quick with a funny or poignant turn of phrase. One of my favorites came from "Favorite Son," a story about a former high school football star who has fallen on hard times. The story beings, "For a certain kind of teenager, a small town is a prison. For another kind, it is a stage." Haigh is an excellent storyteller, at once adept at ensconcing her readers in her often uncharitable fictional town and at conveying the humanity of her characters. News from Heaven is at times a little somber, but that's to be expected from a collection of stories about the economic decline of a coal mining town. I very much enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading other works by Haigh.


Brent Waggoner said...

The cover and title would have probably put me off, but I love interconnected stories about small towns. I'll have to check this out.

Carlton Farmer said...

I agree. I didn't think the title fit.
I think you would really like it.

Brent Waggoner said...

Why did you decide to read it?

Carlton Farmer said...

I picked it from a list that Harper Collins sent me/us. From the description, I knew that it was short stories.

Anonymous said...

I've read one book by Haigh and really enjoyed her style. I'll have to check this one out as well.

Thanks for being on the tour.