Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 18)
Mountain Path does not fall into the sentimental tradition of most mountain fiction up to that time…. Mountain Path is the story of an outsider who comes into the mountains with little or no background for understanding the people and their ways….
[The plot] is interesting enough; but it is not really the crux of the novel. On the contrary, the plot exists primarily to provide continuity for the presentation of a gallery of mountain people and, indeed, of a whole way of life. (p. 45)
[It] is not plot that makes Mountain Path a successful novel—for, from that standpoint, the narrative is no more nor no less than those of the host of mountain novels that preceded and accompanied it. Indeed, if Path has weaknesses, they lie in the area of plot. Events are melodramatic and often contrived; characters are occasionally incorporated into the story with little or no relevance to the story line; and foreshadowing is often too obvious. But these flaws are diminished when viewed against the total fabric of the novel.
In Mountain Path Mrs. Arnow has successfully juxtaposed two life views—that of the inhabitants of Cal Valley and that of the world of "civilization" (Louisa). They bring each other into sharp relief and, indeed, are the raison d'être of the novel. In this sense, the plot is merely a vehicle and not an end in itself. Only occasionally does it...
(The entire section is 3205 words.)
Dorothy H. Lee
Usually categorized as naturalistic fiction, Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker (1954) may be considered more fruitfully within the context of heightened realism. Beneath the deceptively simple surface of its narrative lies a selectivity and shaping that transcends the reportorial naturalistic method. The journey which the novel describes of Gertie Nevels and her family from the Kentucky mountains to Detroit is an archetypal one: from pastoral to urban setting and specifically a literal and metaphorical descent from an almost Edenic environment to the city of Hell. Both physical milieux and the characters' psychological responses re-enforce the perception. To consider Gertie's experience in such terms is to broaden our awareness of the work's riches, for we must evaluate the nature of the urban world's torture, determine what innocence is lost, and decide whether or not a figurative exit from the society of the damned is possible.
The novel's two-part development, its movement from pastoral to urban setting, is pivotal. Arnow's description of Gertie's mountain life in the first nine chapters provides a contrast by which one may fully measure her torment in the city. Her clearly defined relationships to the earth itself, to artistic endeavor, to family and community give insight into the sources of fulfillment available in the Kentucky hills. Then, as her painful experiences in Detroit emerge, they force an evaluation of the effects...
(The entire section is 1275 words.)
[The Dollmaker's] depiction of family life—the entangled bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters—is unparalleled in modern American fiction. Especially affecting is the loving relationship between mother and daughter shared by Arnow's heroine, Gertie, and five-year-old Cassie. Skillfully and movingly the novel depicts fictional children as original and as realistic as any child the reader has known. It also makes the joys and the pains of motherhood as heartbreakingly palpable as any vicarious account can suggest.
More than just employing fresh subject matter, The Dollmaker dramatizes the frequently skirted conflict between a mother's attempt to be both true to her art and watchful of her children's welfare and happiness. Gertie Nevels, a hulking Kentucky hill woman with a talent for carving in wood, grapples with the distractions and obstructions that interfere with her sculpting a human figure out of a cherished man-sized piece of wild-cherry wood. The cherry-wood figure is more than an art object: carved during moments of hope, sorrow, regret, and then despair, it reflects the nature and the toughness of Gertie's moral fiber. The aesthetic and moral quality of the figure thus takes on singular importance in Gertie's life, for she is as much creating and discovering her destiny as she is demonstrating and assessing her talent. More than anything else, Gertie's motherhood is responsible for the...
(The entire section is 2039 words.)
… Dramatizing her primary theme of Kentucky hill people struggling to maintain their integrity amid family and community pressures, Hunter's Horn equals The Dollmaker in its distinctive characters and its forceful scenes. Hunter's Horn is unusual for juxtaposing raucous, pungent humor with uncompromising depictions of the prejudices and cruelties that constrict lives.
The hero, Nunn Ballew, husband, father of five, and owner of a dilapidated farm, neglects his family responsibilities to hunt the elusive red fox, King Devil. His maniacal pursuit recalls Ahab's search for Moby Dick, but Arnow's novel discloses the family consequences of the obsession as well as the thrill and challenge of an encounter with an enigmatic natural force. A loving though undemonstrative man, Nunn suffers shame and guilt when, for example, he spends all the family's money on two pedigreed foxhounds he hopes will catch King Devil….
But however much we may resent Nunn's improvidence …, it is a testament to Arnow's extraordinary skill at characterization that almost against our will we share his anguish and cheer him on after his four-legged red whale. Hunter's Horn manifests Arnow's ability to create male characters as palpable and as complex as her best women. Nunn can't be written off as another hateful man.
Hunter's Horn will help to defuse the charge that women writers produce only...
(The entire section is 400 words.)