With the exception of The Weedkiller’s Daughter, Harriette Arnow writes of Appalachian characters and settings. Even though she disliked labels, she nevertheless helped to create the genre of modern Appalachian literature and to separate it from local color or regional realism, in which an outside narrator describes the quaint or picturesque way of life of an isolated group of people as a means of entertainment. Arnow, in contrast, writes with sympathy and understanding of rural people and presents them as individuals, not stereotypes. She focuses on the everyday lives of working people, often centering on women, and she excels in depicting the details of their lives and work. Arnow also is careful to present the dialect of these characters as part of her realism, but the unusual spellings can occasionally become distracting.
Often, Arnow’s characters find themselves in conflict with a powerful outside force, such as history, culture, economics, or social rules and pressures to conform. This conflict has led many to see a deterministic strain in her works. For example, World War II, the economic situation of her family, and the pressure to conform to materialistic values confront Gertie Nevels, the protagonist of The Dollmaker. This determinism is also seen in Arnow’s frequent portrayal of the limitations of women’s lives in traditional patriarchal society (Suse and Lureenie in Hunter’s Horn). Often her characters refuse to conform to the strict religious beliefs of their communities. In spite of the dark fates of some of her characters, Arnow usually holds out hope with characters who make connections through the bonds of common humanity. For example, while encountering prejudice against hillbillies in a wartime Detroit housing project, Gertie is also the recipient of kindness and compassion from the other women in the alley, in spite of their different backgrounds.
Another feature of Arnow’s fiction is an ecological awareness. Arnow chronicles the loss of natural habitats due to expanding civilization and urbanization. She notes the damage to land due to poor farming practices. Most of her works also celebrate the beauty and power of nature and her characters’ emotional responses to it.
Arnow’s first three published novels are often referred to as her Kentucky trilogy. She considered them stories of the erosion of a traditional way of life, as the geographically isolated characters increasingly come into contact with the outside world. Mountain Path presents the traditional rural community of the late 1920’s. By the late 1930’s of Hunter’s Horn, a gravel road has reached close enough to the community to bring in both positive and negative influences of society beyond. At the time of the World War II setting of The Dollmaker, the rural community has become depopulated as the men have gone off to war or to work in factories, often never to return. Taken together, the three novels trace social change in the region.
The Dollmaker is Arnow’s most widely read and best-known work. Novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates calls it the “most unpretentious American masterpiece.” It is historically important in documenting the great Appalachian out-migration and in presenting a vivid picture of life and work in a wartime housing project in Detroit.
In the novel, Gertie Nevels and her family move to Detroit from Kentucky during World War II so that Clovis, Gertie’s husband, can work in one of the war-effort factories. Life in the crowded Detroit housing project where they live contrasts with the peaceful farm life they left behind. For Gertie, whose dream is to buy a small farm, Detroit is a nightmare.
Gertie is a memorable...
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