Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker is a story of the displacement of a Kentucky hill family by the promise of a better life in the industrial, World War II North. Upon learning that he will not be called up for immediate military service, Clovis Nevels decides, without consulting his wife, Gertie, to seek employment in Detroit. When he finds a job, Clovis sends for his family and settles them in Merrie Hill Alley, a ghetto of transplanted industrial workers and their families.

Arnow opens The Dollmaker by introducing the reader to Gertie, the work’s large, rawboned protagonist. In the opening section, Gertie Nevels is riding alone on a mule with only a baby held securely in her arms as a companion. This surreal scene soon assumes meaning when Gertie flags down a car occupied by an Army officer and his driver and forces them to take her and her child into town. The desperate nature of Gertie’s trip becomes apparent when Arnow discloses that Gertie’s child has typhoid and will surely die if medical attention is not soon forthcoming. The strength of Gertie’s convictions and the delicacy in her large hands is demonstrated when, with only a pocket knife, a hairpin, and a poplar twig at her disposal, she performs a tracheotomy on her infant son Amos as the car speeds toward town.

For the next eight chapters, Arnow paints a naturalistic portrait of the Kentucky mountain world into which Gertie has been thrust, a world of hardships and unrecognized dreams. One dream, however, keeps Gertie going: She wants to own a small piece of land to which she and her family can belong. She saves a few cents here and there toward the day that she will be able to buy the land. When her brother Henley is killed in the war, Gertie learns that he has left her nearly three hundred dollars of his “cattle money.” With her newfound wealth, Gertie moves toward making her dream a reality. She buys a piece of land known as the Tipton place from her uncle and begins making her new purchase conform to her expectations.

Gertie’s dream is thwarted and the degree of the actual control she has over her life becomes clear, however, when Clovis sends word that he wants Gertie and his children to join him in Detroit. Instead of supporting Gertie in her quest for a personal identity, Gertie’s mother and uncle insist that she take back the money she gave her uncle for the farm and use it for the move to Detroit. Receiving no encouragement, except for...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)