The next two books from my list were from very early in 2013. Jennifer Haigh released a collection of short stories based on characters and locations from one of her earlier novels. Laura Harrington’s debut was popular with libraries, and I read it because she was going to be on an author panel I put together at the Massachusetts Library Association. They turned up at #’s 11 & 12 on my Top 15.
Not having read Haigh’s Baker Towers, the novel in which the small Pennsylvania town of Bakerton debuted, I wasn’t sure if I’d be missing something when reading this collection of stories about people tired to that tiny, former mining-community. I needn’t have worried, Jennifer Haigh is a writer of consummate skill, drawing me in and giving me just enough information to understand the context while spinning a series of tales that show how important our upbringings and our community roots affect our lives. With stories spanning the 40’s era of war to present day, all the characters in News from Heaven have ties to Bakerton, PA, and each story has subtle ties to the others, truly making the reader a feeling of community among these characters: community across generations. The Baker Family, founders of the once prosperous Bakerton mines, are ever-present in these stories, looming over characters’ shared histories. I was concerned, at first, that most of the stories were going to revolve around timid young women who are taken advantage of in a variety of ways, but I shouldn’t have worried, Haigh would never resort to such a limiting palette. Instead she creates a variety of experiences that exhibit strength, weakness, love, bitterness and a whole host of experience. I was particularly struck by ne’er-do-well Sandy’s story; a man with a gambling problem, racing to escape his roots who comes to a possible turning-point on his 33rd birthday. We later find out what becomes of Sandy in a subsequent story, and both stories add up to something powerful and moving. One final bit of praise, I just loved the meaning of the book’s title: a lovely, poetic image.
With Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington takes a fairly basic theme, the loss of a loved one, and creates a powerful coming-of-age story in a fully-realized community. When Alice’s father, Matt, enlists in the armed services and is stationed in Iraq, she is bereft. Her father is the one family member who knows her and understands her the best. Fully immersed in adolescence, Alice’s relationship with her mother, Agnes, is complicated, besides with Agnes is dealing with her own fears about her husband. Then there’s her younger sister, Ellie, who’s just too young to really understand what’s going on.
Harrington’s novel focuses on Alice, turning the loss of her father into a powerful transition to adulthood, but what is truly remarkable is the way she effortlessly slips into the minds of the many other important characters in the book who are profoundly affected by Matt’s absence. Matt leaves his family right at the beginning of the book, but his presence is overwhelming throughout. Through reminiscences Harrington brings Matt fully to life, showing how strong his ties to each of the females in his life, and how different.
Beyond the rich characterization of Alice and her family, Harrington does the same for the community they live in. Henry is the awkward boy next door, who has been Alice’s best friend practically from birth, and whose relationship with Alice is suddenly changing. Uncle Eddie is Agnes’ charismatic, devil-may-care brother who finds his role in Alice’s extended family evolving. Alice’s Gram who owns the local coffee shop must suffer her own loss while bolstering the floundering family. Even minor characters, like Mrs. Piantowski who bakes the bread for Gram’s coffee shop, or Mrs. Minty who has suffered tragedies of her own become startlingly real under Harrington’s skillful guidance. Rarely have characters in a novel come so alive for me. Harrington’s story follows a lovely arc, with the ending in particular, hitting a series of beautifully drawn notes. A truly successful debut from a talented writer.