- Title: News From Heaven – The Bakerton Stories
- Author: Jennifer Haigh
- Genre: Short Stories
- Published: (expected) January 29, 2013 – Harper
- Source: Review copy from Harper
Synopsis: Set in Bakerton, Pennsylvania— the company town that was the setting of Jennifer Haigh’s award-winning bestseller Baker Towers—News from Heaven explores how our roots, the families and places in which we are raised, shape the people we eventually become. Through a series of connected stories, Haigh brilliantly portrays this close-knit community from its heyday during two world wars to its decline in the final years of the twentieth century. Exploring themes of restlessness, regret, redemption and acceptance, she depicts men and women of different generations shaped by dreams and haunted by disappointments. A young woman glimpses a world both strange and familiar when she becomes a live-in maid for a Jewish family in New York City. A long-lost brother makes an unexpected and tragic homecoming. A woman must come to terms with a heartbreaking loss when she discovers a shocking family secret. A solitary middle-aged woman tastes unexpected love when a young man returns to town. And characters familiar to fans of Baker Towers—indomitable Joyce Novak, her eccentric sister Dorothy, and their mysterious younger brother Sandy—return for an encore performance. Written with poignant realism, News from Heaven deftly captures our desire for escape and our need for connection, and reveals the enduring hold of a past that remains ever present in the lives of ordinary people struggling to understand themselves and define their place in the world.
My take: I shouldn’t be surprised that Jennifer Haigh’s collection of short stories made me rethink my automatic response to the format. Normally I don’t care for them at all. I find them bleak, depressing, and a chore to read. Not so with News From Heaven. Reading each story was like paging through a scrapbook. There’s history, relationships, celebrations, heartbreak, regrets, and even a bit of optimism.
Bakerton, Pennsylvania was home to the coal mine that employed most of the men from town. Once the mine was mined out the jobs were gone and the town was thrown into hard times. Haigh’s connected stories cover the ups and downs of the townspeople – from the mine owners to the workers and everyone in between.
I grew up in a small town so I could identify with the aspect that Joyce in “Desiderata” acknowledged of everyone knowing your story – or at least thinking they know. I don’t live there anymore so they don’t know the rest of my story. That’s not the case with the older residents in Bakerton. More than likely they were born there, raised families, and will eventually die there. Their complete stories known to all.
My favorite story (if I must choose one) was Broken Star. It’s about Regina, a girl in her early teens, and the summer her young aunt and cousin came to visit. I also liked the final story in the collection: Desiderata. The high school principal died a few months earlier and his wife is sorting through his things. Poignant, relatable, uplifting. Really, though, I enjoyed each story.
Jennifer Haigh is one of my favorite authors. I know it’s only January but I expect News From Heaven to be on my 2013 Favorite Books list. It was a pleasure to read.
Note: I read Baker Towers several years ago (the month it was published) and although I remembered the general story there was a lot I forgot. If you haven’t read Baker Towers I recommend doing so before News From Heaven. It’s not imperative but it could help in your overall enjoyment of these connected stories.