Books 2013 – News from Heaven

It has taken me so long to pull my thoughts together about this wonderful collection of short stories by Jennifer Haigh. News from Heaven is basically about a collection of characters from Bakerton, Pennsylvania. The town, itself, feels like the main character of the book, as the stories take us from its heyday as a coal mining capital to well beyond its demise and depression.

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Many of the characters in the book are interconnected, and there is some overlapping of story lines, but overall, I found it a little difficult to keep those connections in order.

The first story, “Beast and Bird” takes place during the early days of World War II and focuses on young Annie Lubicki, the eldest daughter of a Polish-born coal miner. In order to earn extra money for her parents and their large brood, Annie travels from Bakerton to work as a maid in an Orthodox Jewish home in New York City. Haigh does a wonderful job here of making the reader feel awkward for Annie in this place where she so clearly doesn’t belong. As time goes on, she makes connections with other characters, but these relationships are doomed, and in the end she returns to Bakerton.

It’s interesting how Haigh makes this town something that no one can really escape. Even those who have left, like the hapless gambler, Sandy, in the story “A Place In the Sun” carry Bakerton with them as part of their DNA. Like their fathers who breathed coal dust and eventually suffered all manner of related diseases, their descendents can’t escape what the town has made them, and they are all a little sad that way.

Sandy is related to a family that seems to run through several stories. While he has left town to try his luck in California and Las Vegas, his sister, Joyce remains, working as a teacher at the Bakerton high school. She marries its principal, and several of the stories follow them and their children through time and away from Bakerton. I got the feeling that some of these characters were related somehow to the Lubickis, but as I said, it was hard to make those connections.

In addition, the book also follows the descendents of the mine’s owners, The Baker Brothers, beginning with Viola Peale, cousin of Edgar and Chester Baker. Her story, “Something Sweet,” is about her lost love for her cousin Edgar, who was killed in World War II. But there’s also more there, something deeper that Haigh twists into the end of the story, and it hits you there at the end, but you also realize that hints to that conclusion were also woven keenly into the body of the story. It’s that kind of writing that makes News from Heaven a beautiful thing.

In the end it didn’t really matter that it was hard to connect the characters from story to story because each one of those stories stands on its own, like looking at a series of photographs from the same place. What we recognize most is the town, and the life it has lived through these people.

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