Picks and Pans Review: Baker Towers

updated 01/24/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Jennifer Haigh
NOVEL
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Forget postmodern alienation: Reading Baker Towers is the literary equivalent of rifling through a thrift shop's rack of 1940s house dresses. Here is a novel that feels vintage, but in the very best way.

Haigh's bestselling first novel, Mrs. Kimble, was published in 2003, and now, in prose rich in sensual detail, she weaves the multigenerational saga of Stanley Novak, a Polish coal miner, his Italian wife, Rose, and their five children as they come of age and battle the gravitational pull of Bakerton, a coal-mining community in Pennsylvania. We follow this cast from 1944, when coal was king, through the Vietnam era, when all that remains of the mining past are silent hills riddled with "black scars left behind."

As the Novaks struggle with the changing landscapes of their lives, they too emerge scarred, but unlike Bakerton, a town that "wore away like a bar of soap," they endure. With the fiercely observed Baker Towers, Haigh proves herself a fine storyteller, one with as much staying power as her characters. Mining her own rural Pennsylvania roots, she has created a heartfelt—and heartrending—tale.

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