We sat a long moment in the dark car. The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.
Yesterday, I wrote about Jennifer Haigh’s second novel, Baker Towers. Centered on the Novak family, the novel begins in the 1940s and focuses on small town America at its peak, then shows how economic hardships during the next three decades impacted the community. Most of the mines shut down, leaving much of the town unemployed. When we last see the remaining Novaks, Dorothy and her sister Joyce are settled in Bakerton and are doing what they can to put their youngest sister, Lucy, through college so she can get away and be successful. The two brothers have long since left. It’s a very open ending that leaves readers aching, considering everything the Novaks privately struggled with throughout the novel.
The fact that Jennifer Haigh was releasing a new book would have been enough to fill me with joy, but I was positively ecstatic to learn that her new short story collection marked a return to the familiar grounds of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. In terms of time frame, News from Heaven overlaps with Baker Towers but goes past where it left off in the 1970s. This time, the Novaks aren’t the central focus. Haigh gives a few secondary characters from Baker Towers their chance in the spotlight and introduces completely new characters from Bakerton who have been displaced by the economic hardships that hit their town. The Novaks also get a few stories of their own and finally offer readers some closure.
The book’s opening story, “Beast and Bird”, is one of my favorites in the collection. Set very close to World War II, the it takes sixteen-year-old Polish girl Annie Lubicki away from Bakerton and into New York City, where she was hired as live-in help for a Jewish family. It’s a cultural shock for Annie, who grew up sheltered and has never heard of kosher traditions or experienced the faster pace of life in a big city.
Another favorite was “Broken Star”, in which a teenager named Regina finally gets to meet her aunt and step-cousin from Florida. Aunt Melanie, the black sheep of the family, has showed up out of the blue to escape a heated marriage. Regina can’t believe that her mother and Melanie are sisters; her mother seems so matronly and reserved, while Melanie is free-spirited. They catch up on all the time that they’ve missed, and when Regina eventually leaves Bakerton to start her own life, she’ll look back on this time as one of the most significant moments of her life.
And, of course, I loved getting to read all about what the Novaks are up to these days. Sandy, Joyce, and Dorothy all make appearances in News from Heaven; their stories offer many answers to questions that arose in Baker Towers. I won’t go into details on these because it would be very easy to get spoilery on those, but it was great to finally know what became of some of my favorite characters.
It would be nice if people read Baker Towers first, since some of the stories are continuations of what happened in that book, but it isn’t necessary. The majority of the stories feature completely new characters, or incorporate minor characters from Baker Towers who don’t require that background reading. It’s a beautiful collection, and as always, Haigh continues to impress me with her ability create these amazing character-driven plots. As an aside, the book itself is absolutely gorgeous, too: deckle edged with a shiny pearl book jacket. It would make a great gift.
News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories was released today by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.