Past Perfect Review: The Dollmaker

Classic Novel by Harriette Arnow
Review by Jody Hobbs Hesler
Issue No. 6 – December 2014

Harriette Arnow

If you haven’t heard of The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow, blame William Faulkner. Apparently, the powers that be determined 1954 was his year to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which he did for his work A Fable – a book that ultimately failed to earn a spot in the canon of his best works. The Dollmaker was in the running for those prizes that same year. If it had won, it very well might have become standard reading for high school juniors, American Studies majors, or at least for earnest English majors across this land. In my opinion, every teacher you’ve ever had should have told you to read this book.

Why? Because The Dollmaker is about everything. It is the quintessential Great American Novel.

It’s about rural America and love for the land. It’s about World War II and how it robbed communities, especially rural ones, of their men, leaving them without farmhands, teachers, drivers, doctors or mechanics. It’s about the transfer of rural culture to cities for factory work and how this transition strangled the self-sufficiency and identity out of the people who had to move. It’s about family, about caring for your own against phenomenal losses. It’s about community, in all its savagery and splendor. It’s about early unions and the fight for fair labor practices. It’s about one powerful woman, emblematic of all powerful women, held back by religious and social custom and her role within her family. It’s about how hard it is for a woman to allow herself to be an artist.

Gertie Nevels is a Kentucky farmer, descended from generations of farmers before her. Her family’s land is entailed to her brother, so she and her husband Clovis work as tenant farmers, paying their rent in labor and produce. Clovis’s work as a tinkerer and mechanic, fixing mostly coal machinery and the odd automobile, adds to their income, except they soon find coal miners and passing cars in short supply during the War. Gertie’s dream is to buy land so she and her family can keep all the fruits of their labors, afford to get the littlest bit ahead, and so she might have evenings free to whittle as much as she pleases. She has this piece of cherry wood, and one day she will have time to free the face she sees lurking behind the grain.

Gertie is the heart and soul of this book. Of all characters I’ve met in literature, she is by far the most vivid. If she walked into the room, I would know her at once. She would be taller than all of the women and most of the men – formidable and ungainly. She would be built for hard work, with chapped hands, sun-and-wind-roughed skin. Her hair would be mussed. She would have a look of concentration and would be in the middle of an important daily task. Short a task important enough, she would busy her hands with her carving, which she saved for times when she had satisfied every other demand. For Gertie, the demands are endless.

The opening scene presents a perfect example of the expanse of Gertie’s responsibilities, as well as her virtually unstoppable resilience. In it, she rides her donkey to the road, flags down a car, and coerces a military officer into giving her a ride to the hospital to get help for her ailing son, Amos. We learn later that he has diphtheria. All we know at first is that Gertie will stop at nothing to save him. She even gives the boy a roadside tracheotomy, whittling a tiny pipe out of a twig in order to let him breathe.

Further evidence of Gertie’s self-sufficiency comes whenafter years and years working various tenant farms while Clovis made scattershot money with his “tinkering,” she manages to save enough money to buy her own place – the Tipton place. In order to do this, she scrimps little bits of money from her labors around the farm and combines it with the money from the sale of her brother Henley’s livestock, which he bequeathed to her after his death in the War. Having her own place would mean that “[n]ever, never would she have to move again; never see again that weary, sullen look on Reuben [her eldest son]’s face that came when they worked together in a field not their own, and he knew that half his sweat went to another man.”

Fearful of Clovis’s furture, Gertie prepares her children for the day the Tipton place will be theirs, telling them, “[b]ut pretty’s th least uv it. It’ll be warm in th winter an cool in th summer, an no matter how hard th wind blows that house’ll never shake, an th hard north wind’ull never tetch it” (57). Gertie feels the horror of the War in the loss of her brother, but expresses hope that “[i]t was if the war and Henley’s death had been a plan to help set her and her children free so that she might live and be beholden to no man, not even to Clovis” (151). This worldview signifies liberation from custom and convention, ushering in a social order that recognizes, validates, and thrives on Gertie’s strengths and skills.

But that social order never arrives. Clovis winds up in Detroit instead of in battle. He wants his family to be with him, and the power of custom dictates what happens next. As states the prior owner of the Tipton Place, “I cain’t let a piece a land come atween a woman an her man an her people.”

Detroit is no Paradise, and every aspect of the place seems bent on facilitating Gertie’s undoing. Their new home is in a project so recently constructed that even the cab driver who takes them there from the train station has never heard of it. Inside, her impression of the place does not improve. “The tired, hungry, shivering children looked at Gertie, their eyes asking and expecting of her the warmth and food she had always given,” and for the first time in her children’s lives, she has no idea what to do next.

Uprooted and without direction, Gertie finds little left of her own familiar self. Her “whittlen” offers her only solace. In the beginning, in her special block of wood “[t]here was only the top of a head, tilted forward a little, bowed, or maybe only looking down, but plainly someone there, crouching, a secret being hidden in the wood, waiting to rise and shed the wood and be done with the hiding.” As Gertie develops the carving in spare and stolen moments, she cuts her sorrows into it, and “…more than her walks through the alleys among the tumultuous sea of children the man in the wood gave rest and peace from thoughts of the things lost behind her and the things ahead she feared” (563).

As the work progresses, everyone who sees it has an opinion about whose face might be peeking out of the wood. The devoutly Catholic Mrs. Daly sees the Blessed Mary. Gertie’s daughter Cassie sees her trouble-making imaginary friend, Callie Lou. Gertie goes back and forth, sometimes picturing a laughing Jesus, other times Judas, the moment before he returns the pieces of silver.

Everyone who sees it admires it, asks after it. Clearly, Gertie is more artist than whittler. Her hand-carved dolls and toys begin to fetch attention and paying customers. She labors over the work with the focus and care of an artist, but her husband sees opportunity. He and “the tool-and-die man” he befriends soon outfit a jigsaw to cut patterns for dolls and other items so that Gertie may mass-produce her merchandise. Need, demands and expectations once again rub the life out of those things that Gertie loves.

It is the power of change that drives all of these threads: the importance and the dangers of adjusting, those things you lose and those things you gain. Gertie loses her heritage, the opportunity to thrive by the work of her own hands, the fabric of her family and even the art of her “whittlen.” What she gains is harder to name. Maybe it’s the dreaded “adjustment” she speaks sharply against when teachers at the school seem determined to bend her children to the new, harsher ways of city life. Whatever she gains, it’s clear that in this new place it’s her losses that now define her.

The Dollmaker
Harriet Arnow

549 pages, $28.49

Jodi HeslerJody Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, PANK, Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, Charlottesville Family Magazine, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah and other places. You can find out more at or on her Facebook writer page: Jody Hobbs Hesler – Writer.

Content © 2013-16 Buffalo Almanack.
Illustrations by John Gummere. Site powered by Wordpress and the Melville theme.
Please address all inquires and concerns to Maxine Vande Vaarst and Katie Morrison, editors.
Thank you for your patronage.