Study Guide

The Dollmaker

by Harriette Arnow

The Dollmaker Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Dollmaker is the story of an Appalachian family’s migration from Kentucky to Detroit during World War II. Uprooted from the land, the Nevelses in Detroit become culturally displaced persons and economic pawns, able to survive, if at all, only by denying their sense of identity and adjusting to the system. Yet they are not alone: The millions of other workers, coming from numerous ethnic backgrounds and crowded into Detroit’s industrial melting pot, suggest that the Nevelses’ experience is a familiar one, with variations. In Detroit, human beings are reduced to economic integers. Thus, unfolding in slowly building, realistic detail supported by powerful unifying symbols, The Dollmaker is ultimately a damning critique of the American industrial order.

The story begins during late fall in the Kentucky Cumberlands, where Gertie and Clovis Nevels and their five children live a poor but close-knit life on a tenant farm. By selling eggs and other farm produce, Gertie has hidden away money for fifteen years to buy their own farm. When her brother, Henley, is killed in the war and her parents give her the government’s compensation payment, Gertie finally has enough money to buy the old Tipton place. A home and an independent livelihood seem within reach.

Clovis, however, unaware of Gertie’s secret plans, has other ideas. He has long been unhappy that he could not provide better for Gertie and the children. He has earned a little money by hauling coal in his old truck, but now, with the miners off at war and gas rationed, even coal hauling is down. Advertisements for war workers in Oak Ridge and elsewhere are enticing. When he goes to Lexington for his army examination and the army indefinitely postpones his call-up, he continues north to Detroit. In Detroit he gets work, sells his truck, and sends money home.

Gertie proceeds with plans to buy the old Tipton farm, but her scandalized mother, believing a wife’s place is with her husband, blocks the sale. When Clovis sends for Gertie and the kids, Gertie’s mother spends the Henley money on clothes and train fare for Detroit. The family’s horrifying train ride—steerage on rails—is a prelude to Detroit itself. The first thing that Gertie hears when they arrive is the slur, “Hillbilly,” and the first things that she feels are Detroit’s blowing snow and paralyzing cold....

(The entire section is 976 words.)