Pennsylvania coal mining country isn't a glamorous setting for a novel. In Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers, the eponymous Baker towers are two huge piles of coal mining waste that dominate the town of Bakerton.
The Italian and Polish immigrant miners of Bakerton in the 1940s are just getting by, living in company houses, shopping at the company store. The Novak family suffers from more than its share of troubles, including the premature death of Stanley, the patriarch. His wife, Rose, soldiers on and manages to raise five children with mixed results. In Baker Towers we follow the lives of Rose and her children through the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. There's lots of coming and going, and coming of age, as children grow up and leave but cannot stay away.
This book reminds me a lot of After This by Alice McDermott. Haigh uses the same light touch, checking in and out of her characters' lives over the course of many years, illuminating their disappointments and their victories. Both books feature working-class Catholic families and describe the cultural upheavals experienced by this group in the middle of the 20th century. Both authors have the gift of understatement.
In Baker Towers the middle daughter, Joyce, is born in the mid-1930s, around the same time my mother was born. My mother grew up in the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania around Wilkes-Barre, which is east of, but similar to, the area described in Baker Towers. Her grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants, and her father started working in the mines when he was 8 years old. By the early 1950s most miners were making good union wages, and my grandparents could afford to send my mother to nursing school in Philadelphia, thereby ensuring her escape to the middle class. In Baker Towers the fatherless Joyce isn't so lucky.