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Is The Dollmaker the latest "rediscovered" masterpiece?

This 1950s novel, beloved by Marilynne Robinson, has power and poignancy – but little that surprises us.

When William Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for A Fable in 1955, he was up against a novel for both honours called The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. The Dollmaker had been a bestseller, receiving excellent reviews: the New York Times called it “one of the finest of 1954”, applauding “the depth and power and stature of this enormous book”, and ­especially the “magnificent” depiction of its protagonist, Gertie Nevels. “There is life in this book, life that flows through its crowded pages like the surge of a mighty river,” the reviewer pronounced.

Over time, however, it sank into obscurity and Arnow was all but forgotten. Now The Dollmaker is being reissued, along with an encomium written in 1971 by Joyce Carol Oates, who described it as a “brutal, beautiful novel”, “a legitimate tragedy, our most unpretentious American masterpiece”.

The Dollmaker is certainly unpretentious. Its story is simple, its characterisation rich but straightforward, its prose unadorned. Gertie is a poor woman from the backwoods of Kentucky, contentedly doing subsistence farming with her husband, Clovis, and their five children. Arnow tells us she is tall, ungainly, strong and ugly; she is also kind, loving, competent and formidable.

The opening scene is a memorable set piece: Gertie’s young son is seriously ill with diphtheria, and she forces an army officer to give her a ride into town, stopping to perform a roadside tracheotomy by whittling a makeshift pipe out of a twig to save her son. When they reach the doctor’s office, Gertie is suddenly intimidated, to the astonishment of the officer, who tells her, “Lady, you can’t be afraid of nothing. Just walk in.”

Gertie’s dream is to buy the family a small farm, and so she has been secreting money away. But events intervene: it is 1945, and her husband is called from the farm to be examined by the draft board. Rejected for active service, Clovis doesn’t return to the farm but takes a factory job in Detroit. Her self-pitying, passive-aggressive, fundamen­talist mother grows hysterical at the idea of her daughter living apart from her husband; the owner of the farm she wants to buy hesitates to sell it to her over the wishes of her mother and husband; and so Gertie allows herself to be bullied into leaving the land and taking the children to Detroit. The family struggles to adapt. Clovis gets entangled in union politics, with disastrous consequences; one child runs away and another is destroyed by city life.

The story’s downward spiral is in the naturalistic tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, except that Arnow rejects naturalism’s emphasis on environmental determinism. The Dollmaker is entirely about Gertie’s choices, and although it is sympathetic to her mistakes it is also clear about where she goes wrong. Her errors consistently derive from submitting to conventionally gendered expectations about womanhood. If not a story of environmental determinism, then, this is certainly a novel about social determinism, about the way that conformity and adaptation push against individualism.

In Gertie’s case, this is symbolised by her favourite activity: whittling dolls out of wood. She is a gifted carver and has a beautiful old block of cherry wood from which, like Michelangelo, she is trying to find the face she wants to release. On some days, she thinks the face will be that of a laughing Christ, but more often she thinks she sees in it Judas, not in the moment of betrayal, but in his moment of forlorn repentance: “Not Judas with his mouth all drooly, his hand held out fer th silver, but Judas given th thirty pieces away. I figger . . . They’s many a one does meanness fer money – like Judas . . . But they’s not many like him gives th money away an feels sorry onct they’ve got it.” Gertie’s vacillation in identifying her doll as Jesus or as Judas asks whether self-sacrifice is self-betrayal; whether it is a Christlike submission to the needs of others or a selling out that betrays not only oneself but, by extension, humanity.

The Dollmaker has power and poignancy, but its fundamentally unsurprising story is told at protracted length. Anyone who has read a novel about internal migration in America will find the outline of the plot predictable; cities in such novels are invariably places of violence, dehumanisation, poverty and vice. And Gertie, despite the vividness of her character, is at heart a noble peasant. Arnow’s bare prose requires a high tolerance for dialect: like her characters, she lived in the backwoods of Kentucky, so we can trust her ear, but many of the orthographic decisions are questionable. Given that the only reason for non-standard spellings is to indicate non-standard pronunciation, it is unclear what purpose is served by rendering “the” as “th”, or “from” as “frum”. It’s distracting and, in a novel of more than 600 pages, it can be deeply irritating.

Whether The Dollmaker constitutes a rediscovered masterpiece is debatable, but given that its fans include Marilynne Robinson (who alludes to it in Home) and Joyce Carol Oates, readers may well want to decide for themselves.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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Elusive sharks, magic carpets, and other summer radio highlights

American singer Beth Ditto on BBC 6 Music is hands down the guest presenter of the season.

A trio of things to divert us as we drift into the dog days: the Norwegian non-fiction hit Shark Drunk makes a perfectly dreamlike Book of the Week (BBC Radio 4, weekdays, 9.45am). Its author, Morten Strøksnes, navigates the waters around the Lofoten Islands looking for a Greenland shark, a highly elusive and languorous creature that can reach 200 years in age and has fluorescent-green parasites covering its milky, sad eyes.

Strøksnes is frequently distracted by the strange summer beauty of the islands. Like a naive hero in a dark-edged John Bauer illustration, he is helplessly drawn to their tiny shores, wandering through forests of rowan dripping with chlorophyll or sitting among a species of pretty yellow flower with a fragrance that has earned it the label “arse-wiper gut grass”. Oh, happy picnics!

Then, to a discussion about the “saucy bits” in One Thousand and One Nights on the BBC World Service’s The Forum (1 August, 9am). Dipping into the massive, ancient Indian/Persian collection of stories about flying carpets and genies reminds me a little of surfing the web – it’s a book that contains so many voices. Such a mixture of moralising and immoral behaviour and tall tales. On and on it goes. (The title in Arabic, Alfu Laylatin wa-Laylah, means “endless”.)

How about this? “The porter saw a girl with eyes like a wild heifer, a neck like a cake for eating and a mouth like the sea of Solomon.” A neck like a cake for eating. Phenomenal lines rush past in a gleefully gurgling whoosh, like water let out of the bath.

Finally, hands down the guest presenter of the summer is the American singer Beth Ditto, with her two-hour stint on BBC 6 Music (28 July, 7pm). Clicking her fingers, speaking with a wink, never short of a compassionate anecdote, Ditto has a unique knack of introing a song as good as Planningtorock’s “Living It Out” by increasingly raising her voice as the music starts thrumming beneath, and then louder still, like someone with her hand on the door of a holiday-island nightclub, excitedly shouting instructions at you before everybody bursts in, minus several flip-flops, and heads straight for the bar.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue