Preview: Jennifer Haigh's new stories a requiem for coal patch characters
Bakerton is a fictional company town in a central Pennsylvania valley where men crouch deep in the earth to support their families, then wind up walking with canes because of Miner's Hip, Miner's Knee or Miner's Back.
In "News From Heaven," a collection of 10 short stories, novelist Jennifer Haigh returns to Bakerton, which resembles the many Pennsylvania coal patches and mill towns where neighborhoods, churches and funeral homes all have particular ethnic flavors, whether Irish, Italian, Polish or Slavic.
If you or your relatives earned a living in places such as Aliquippa, Braddock, Donora or Smock, you will instantly recognize Bakerton residents such as the teacher, Miss Viola Peale, the handsome rogue of a gambler named Sandy Novak, his smart, capable sister, Joyce, and the town recluse, Sunny Baker. "Baker Towers," published in 2005, serves as an elegy for all shrinking company towns. "News From Heaven," just published by Harper, is a kind of requiem for certain characters from Bakerton.
Ms. Haigh will do a reading and speak at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland and do a reading at 7 p.m. Friday at the Barnes & Noble in The Waterfront, Homestead.
Company towns, she said in a telephone interview, are a "small crucible for looking at human nature." Ms. Haigh (rhymes with vague) lives outside Boston. A graduate of Dickinson College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she grew up in Barnesboro, a small coal mining town north of Johnstown in Cambria County.
The author of four novels, Ms. Haigh thought her short stories would remain regional in their appeal but has learned that they resonate with readers who grew up in logging towns in the Pacific Northwest.
"Our part of the world hasn't been exhausted as a subject. It's a place that is not written about all the time and seen in movies all the time," she said.
Early in her career, she said, "I was a short story writer long before I attempted to write a novel. I have finally sort of got my feet under me in this form."
Her mother, a high school librarian, was a great influence.
"This was a really fortunate thing. She was uniquely positioned to put just the right books in my hand at just the right time," Ms. Haigh said.
At age 10, she discovered Agatha Christie mysteries.
"It was, to me, completely captivating -- mysteries set in different countries. I loved the idea that I wasn't reading books for kids. I felt very grown-up reading them."
At age 13, her mother gave her F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," a novel that remains one of her favorites.
When she grew up in Barnesboro during the 1970s, Ms. Haigh said, the town had about 3,000 people. "The mines were already on the downswing. As I got to be a teenager, it got to be a whole lot worse."
As a teenager learning about reincarnation, she thought, "I must have done something terrible in a past life to be born here. It seemed like I was being punished. I had a real sense of injury about it."
Now, at age 44, she has immersed herself in the homespun fabric of company town life and emerged with sensitive, imaginative stories as colorful and complex as the hand-painted Ukrainian Easter eggs she saw as a child.
In 2000, Barnesboro merged with Spangler to form a borough called Northern Cambria.
"The two combined are smaller than Barnesboro was when I was a kid," Ms. Haigh said.
Ms. Haigh wrote the stories in "News From Heaven" in between producing four novels: "Mrs. Kimble," "Baker Towers," "The Condition" and "Faith."
Among the best stories in this short story collection is "What Remains," a tale of how Bakerton community leaders try to attract jobs in the form of a new state prison. To succeed, they must persuade Sunny Baker, the town recluse, to clean up her junk-littered property.
"They are eager to do anything they absolutely can to make this happen. I have worked as a volunteer in Massachusetts state prisons. This is nobody's dream job, the same way that mining coal is nobody's dream job. Working in a prison, is, to my mind, similar in ways to working in a coal mine. It's going to scare away a lot of people," the author said.
First Published February 20, 2013 12:00 am