Worth A Read: News from Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh

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The BUZZ: A collection of short stories by the award-winning author of Faith and Baker Towers (PEN/Hemingway Award, Winship/PEN Award for Fiction).

The GIST: These interrelated stories stem from the fallen town of Bakerton, PA. A booming coal-mining burg in the 40’s, Bakerton now struggles to keep its head above water. The mines have closed, and the only hope for sustenance might come from the development of a correctional facility. Some of the characters hail from Haigh’s Baker Towers story, populating the pages from past and present. In Beast and Bird, a young Polish girl treks from a Pennsylvania farm to Manhattan, where she serves as a maid for a Jewish family before WWII. In Something Sweet, a devoted teacher helps her favorite student navigate his otherness, including a penchant for decorating, immense talents on stage, and more comfort among his female friends than the boys in his class. A Place in the Sun follows handsome and gifted Sandy’s escape from Bakerton, after having mysteriously fallen through its cracks. The choices he makes in freedom from that place don’t differ enough from the ones he made in its confines, so his path is a tragic one. Alienation and connection show up potently in each story, in simple and complex circumstances.

The WRITING: Poignant and elegant. Haigh’s characters are so authentic that I thought she was definitely Catholic herself, then Italian, then Jewish, then Polish… She seems to have an inside angle on the traits and habits of many different communities. Her description of place is just as bright and clear. These stories go back a little farther than Baker Towers, shining a light on a some of its dark corners. Mostly in third person, a few first person departures support endearing narrators. Haigh’s standpoint of moral ambiguity presents an opportunity for the reader to view the lives of each character from a compassionate vantage point, elevating these stories from their melancholy content to a higher place of observation.

BUY OR BORROW: Buy. I will reread this collection, to savor Haigh’s hand with language. You don’t have to have read Baker Towers to appreciate these characters and their stories. 

“The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.”

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