(Review) The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

Publisher and Publication Date: Scribner. 1954. 2010.
Genre: Fiction. Southern Stories.
Pages: 688.
Source: Self-purchase.
Rating: Very good.

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This is a YouTube video of the film, The Dollmaker. The main character is Gertie Nevels, she is portrayed by Jane Fonda.


The Dollmaker is the story of the Nevels family during the World War II years. They live in rural Kentucky. Gertie is the mother. The father of the family is Clovis. Their children are Clytie, Reuben, Cassie Marie, Enoch, and Amos. Gertie is a strong character. In the book, she is described as a large woman. She is resilient, strong-willed, and has remarkable perseverance. She is an artisan. She crafts dolls or figures from wood.  Her husband secures a job in Detroit, Michigan. He sends word to his family to join him. Gertie and their children travel by train to Detroit. The travel by train is a first. They have entered a strange new life in Detroit. The culture shock never wanes. The children attend school and are bullied. The older girl tries to fit in with the other girls by changing her clothing style. Gertie fights hard to hold-on to the hope of returning to a plot of land in Kentucky. She fights hard to retain their standards of culture and beliefs. Gertie is the glue that holds the family together.

I remember watching The Dollmaker on television in 1984. I remembered a little about the film.

What makes the story is Gertie. She is a larger than life character. She is the matriarch of the family. Without Gertie, the story would fall apart. Her husband is a working man, but he reminds me of a prop on the stage. He is just there. On occasion, he and Gertie have a disagreement. During their conversations, it was interesting to study how Gertie voiced her opinions with respect to Clovis's ego. It reminded me of watching a circus performer cross a wire high above the ground.
Two things I thought were interesting about the story.
1. No closure. The story ends without knowing what has happened or an inkling of what will happen to the family.
2. No reference to Christianity. Often, in southern stories, Christianity is the religious belief of at least the main character. In The Dollmaker, during a conversation, Gertie states she is not a believer. She sends her children to Sunday school but she does not attend. During crisis moments in the story she does not pray. God is not mentioned. For Gertie, her thoughts, dreams, hopes, and faith, dwell in living on a plot of land in Kentucky.
The Dollmaker is a depressing story. I don't remember moments of happiness. There are moments of rest in the story but no joy. Every second of life is hardship. There is a deep sadness that hangs over the story. This sadness is for the place and people of yesterday.
Through the story of The Dollmaker, I was given a glimpse of people from the south who relocated to the north for jobs. I was shown what life for them looked like. The time period is the World War II years when the Great Depression had ended but a war was in progress. Many of the jobs were geared for the war. In order to make a living and provide for a family, men (those not in the military) left the rural areas and relocated to the city. 

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