Joyce Carol Oates calls The Dollmaker “a legitimate tragedy, our most unpretentious American masterpiece.” Harriette Arnow masterfully takes us on the incredible journey of Gertie, a farm girl, born and bred, as she and her four children follow Gertie’s husband to Detroit during World War II. Gertie transforms from a woman who has mastered her world, who can do anything, to one of thousands of displaced women who join the “economic knot of modern industrial society” (Oates) as their men seek jobs in factories forged on the blood of the soldiers dying in Europe.
A debate rages throughout the book and inside Gertie to interpret God as love or God as vengeance. Raised with the God of vengeance, Gertie struggles with the God she knows and the God her mother has given her.
Arnow uses an objective correlative to illustrate this wrestle. Gertie has an artistic talent that she never values. She whittles and carves and she’s kept a large piece of cherry wood that someday she will carve into the likeness of Jesus. If only she can decide what that likeness is. And, of course, if she can set aside the time between chores and caring for her family to work on her “foolishness.”
Gertie doesn’t get to carving until late in the book, but she imagines the wood as her mother’s vengeful god, then her own caring one, even her daughter, Cassie Marie’s, interpretation, that the block of wood contains a woman named Callie Lou who is Cassie Marie’s imaginary friend.
As her life gets deeper and deeper into trouble Gertie searches the faces of her neighbors trying to decide who she can base her carving on, whose face or beliefs hold the true meaning? But she never finds it. And in the best way of using an objective correlative, it is present at the end and leaves us with a deep understanding of the loss the character’s experienced.
This book offers so many possible interpretations. There are feminist interpretations to be made, western history lessons to be learned, spiritual debates. It’s a great book club book and I would recommend it to anyone. You will be moved. You will understand something you didn’t before. And you will never forget these characters.
Bestselling, multi-published writer, Mario Acevedo will be giving a FREE workshop on Speculative Fiction: The Good, The Bad and The Weird on Monday, March 26th, 6:30 pm to 9 pm at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock.