Book Review – The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

The last several years have seen remarkable changes to the American way of life. In a period of “unprecedented” economic uncertainty many long for the halcyon days following the Second World War. At the time America witnessed the largest economic expansion in world history. The US produced more than half of all manufactured goods on the planet. While I can sympathize with those who pine for these idyllic days of our nation’s past, I wondered what the people who lived through it felt about the time. Lucky for me, I discovered a “voice from the era” in the form of Harriette Arnow’s classic 1954 novel The Dollmaker.

The time period from the Second World War through its immediate aftermath was anything but idyllic in this fictionalized account of 1940s Detroit. The novel described capitalism run amok, the financial struggle to raise a family and a society riddled with a blatant hatred of foreigners. Sound familiar?

The novel traced the journey of Gertie Nevels from her Kentucky farm to wartime Detroit. Due to a labor shortage her husband got recruited to work in a Detroit factory. Gertie transitioned from a woman who helped support her family by raising and selling goods on their farm to a person struggling to survive in an environment totally alien to her.  While all of these elements made for a compelling story, I didn’t care for The Dollmaker. For me the clichés, melodrama and merciless assaults on capitalism made for an excruciating read.

This novel brought to mind the “myth of the yeoman farmer” elucidated so eloquently by Richard Hofstadter in The Age of Reform. He described how numerous politicians during the Progressive Era picked up on the idea of the “yeoman farmer” expressed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m paraphrasing, but Hofstadter wrote something to the effect that the poorest subsistence farmers in the country could take solace in the fact that America’s wealthiest continually talked about how people should envy them.

It’s ludicrous to describe farm life as Edenesque. It entails arduous labor from daybreak until sunset. One always has to fear poor weather and bad harvests. So for Ms. Arnow to portray an agrarian lifestyle as exponentially superior to working in industry is naïve. She correctly pointed out in the book that union politics, greedy business owners and “changeovers” in the economy can make manufacturing employment somewhat tenuous. Still, it does have advantages over farm life. For example: the promise of a paycheck for time worked. It also provides opportunities for more money in the form of overtime. Gertie’s husband, Clovis, took in a good deal of the latter during the course of the story. Because of this, I would’ve appreciated more balance in the narrative.

Gertie’s and her children’s culture shock with life in the city served as one of the themes of the book. Instances where the family struggled to hold on to its roots abounded. A touching one took place when her daughter, Clytie, instructed her brother to stop saying ‘hoped’ for ‘heped’. (Page 324) In other cases I found it silly. After one of her children’s teachers conferred with Gertie to discuss his inability to ‘adjust’ she reacted as follows:

Gertie cracked a knuckle joint. “You mean that when they’re through here they could—if they went to Germany—start gitten along with Hitler, er if they went to—Russia, they’d get along there, they’d act like th Russians an be”—Mr. Daly’s word was slow in coming—“communists…” (Page 335)

It’s a real stretch to compare living under totalitarianism to adjusting to life in Detroit.

The author also used the book as a platform to critique capitalism. Some were subtle, others not so much. Here’s a good example of the former:

She could raise bushels of sweet potatoes, fatten a pig, kill it, and make good sausage meat, but she didn’t know how to buy. (Page 350)

There’s no question that capitalism has flaws. With that acknowledgement it’s done more to raise the standard of living and lift more people out of poverty than any other economic system. While I defend the author’s right to disparage its deficiencies, most of her negative observations centered on corruption or unscrupulous business practices. (i.e. Kickbacks, selling bad fruit, and overcharging.) These things represent the abuse of capitalism; not a tenet of it. That’s a big difference. Ms. Arnow failed to make this distinction.

I’m sure some readers would enjoy The Dollmaker. The portrayal of a woman’s effort to hold her family together in uncomfortable surroundings during challenging times will, no doubt, resonate with many. The political views expressed lacked a full understanding of how they corresponded to the real world. Next I’m going to read an Ayn Rand novel to get the same experience from the other side of the political spectrum.

 

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