Mothers’ Day: The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

published 1954


[Set in the early 1940s. Gertie’s brother Henley has been killed in WW2. She is out walking with her daughter Cassie]

Cassie lagged again, and Gertie, hurrying down the lane, gave a slow headshake, as over a puzzle, as she listened to the child, now in the road, now hidden in the brush, trying at times to skip in the too big shoes, now and then singing snatches of her wordless songs that almost always ended in bursts of laughter or low murmurings…

The child’s prattle faded. Mostly she heard the silence. She walked even faster, running away from the silence, the emptiness; in it would come Henley…

Many times at night, unable to sleep, she had got down the Bible, but mostly she sat in the lean-to kitchen, so as not to waken Clovis or the children, with the book closed across her knees. The old questions that had always been in the Bible for her came back with Henley’s one question – Job’s children, did they know or question why they died to test the patience of their father? And Jethro’s daughter, bewailing her fate in the mountains, had she ever, like Henley, asked, ‘Why me?’ Did Judas ever ask, ‘Somebody has to sin to fulfil the prophecy, but why me?’

She walked faster, but slackened her pace when she heard Cassie’s prattle, behind her now.
commentary: It is Mothers’ Day here in the UK, although the featured mother above is very American – and the book, a classic, is almost unknown here.

Gertie has to be one of the great fictional mothers, bringing up her children in great hardship, trying (along with her husband Clovis) to do her best for them. She is forever worried for them, concerned, trying to defend them and save them. The book starts with an astonishing scene on the backroads of Kentucky, where she is desperate to get a seriously ill child to the doctors – she somehow forces a reluctant army officer to take them into town, but along the way performs an emergency tracheotomy on the child. It is an opening unlike any book I can think of. She is shown in all her strength, a woman who will take on the US Army to save her child.

She and her family are poor farmers in a remote part of the state, but they are happy, and she has hopes and plans to own their own land. During the War her husband goes to Detroit to work in a factory – eventually she is pressured to follow him, though this means giving up all her plans.

In Detroit she lives in a housing project, an alley full of different families, all of them clearly drawn for us, and we follow their lives for the next couple of years, with endless ups and downs (mostly downs, tbh). Gertie has a talent for wood-carving, and she makes the dolls of the title to try to get money for the family. She is also forever looking at a large chunk of wood she has been treasuring for years, not sure how best to carve it.

There is much discussion of child-raising in the book - the mothers in the alley have very varied ways of parenting, and it is fascinating to read, and to see that all the current discussion and variations were in full flow back then.

There’s also a woman who wants a housecoat (subject of much Clothes in Books discussion recently) for Christmas –
‘She’d set her heart on a housecoat she seen in a window at American Credit.’
‘With flounces and a lot of gold?’ Mrs Anderson asked.
Max nodded, glad, ‘He must a got it. Full-skirted, swishy?’

Online there is a reference to ‘a club for people who could only read The Dollmaker once’, and you can totally understand that. The book is a masterpiece, it is heart-wrenching and beautiful and quite extraordinary. But  one section of the book is so tragic that if I were to read The Dollmaker again I would most certainly skip it. It is too much.

It is not a heart-warming story of happy communities – it is probably a very truthful picture of neighbours who are fighting one minute and forced to help each other the next. There is no avoiding the grinding poverty, the fears about money, the paper-thin walls that mean everyone knows your business.

We also get a brief portrayal of a very difficult mother-daughter relationship: Gertie’s mother is only in a couple of scenes, but jumps off the page as a certain kind of person, complaining the whole time and never happy. It is she who pushes Gertie to leave the land and join Clovis in Detroit.

And that leads me onto my only criticism: the book shows the city as being totally bad, and it is constantly being compared unfavourably with living on the land. There are no benefits allowed for Detroit, and that does seem unconvincing and unrealistic. The scales are tipped by the author, so that the move to the city is shown as entirely dark, and as putting an end to the family’s hopes and dreams. But it's hard to believe that dirt-farming has no downside...

But somehow it is compelling and gripping, and not as depressing as it might be. I realize that doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but I thought it was a wonderful book. John Steinbeck is feted as a great author in this area, but to me this book is better than any of his.

It is being re-issued now, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves both in the USA and in the rest of the world.

Gertie is a great Bible reader, so I hesitate to correct her, but I wonder if she actually meant the daughter of Jephtha (rather than Jethro) in the passage above.

Previous Mothers' Day entries have included books by Dodie SmithAngela Carter, Arnold Bennett, GB Stern - and also a Guardian piece on Bad Mothers. Click label below to see more.  

The picture is by the incomparable Dorothea Lange, photographic chronicler of 30s America. So although it was taken in 1936, a few years before the book’s setting, I thought this looked like Gertie and one of her children. It shows ‘Jewish-American farm mother, Mrs. Cohen, wife of the farm manager’ in New Jersey, and is from the NYPL.


  1. Happy Mother's Day, Moira! That was such a perfect choice of 'photo, Moira! And a great choice of a book for Mother's Day. There is something about a book that shows, in ways large and small, how much a mother cares for her children, and how far she will go to protect them. It can be most moving.

    1. Thanks Margot, I did love the photo, I keep staring at it. And the mother-child relationship is always worth reading about and writing about.

  2. Almost tempted until I looked it up and saw how long it was. I'll stick with my Steinbeck!

  3. I love that photo! Tbh, I think life would be tough on the land and in the cities! My Dad hates cities, "How can people live on top of one another like that?" he says - he's always lived and worked in the country, in some very remote places. I've never heard of this book, although it sounds intriguing... however, after reading Col's comment about the length, I'd be reluctant to read it if it is truly huge. Great choice though Moira!

    1. Thanks, and yes I was very pleased with the photo. I am definitely someone who prefers city to country, and I really don't think the land is everything that Gertie in the book thinks!I read the book on Kindle, but it looks like its 500+ pages, so it is a commitment.

  4. I have not heard of this book. It sounds much too depressing to me but I would give it a try anyway if it were not so long. Most copies I see (Goodreads) say over 600 pages.

    Happy belated Mother's Day.

    1. Yes it is long, though I found it very readable in its bleak way. There were some very nice moments in it.
      Happy Mother's Day to you too, in advance for when you celebrate it (in May?).

  5. I think I'd go crazy if I had to live permanently in the country! And the farmer's life is not for me. I haven't read this book. It was made into a TV movie, right? For some reason, I'm thinking Jane Fonda, but that doesn't seem right. Cloris Leachman?
    Ha! It WAS Jane Fonda.

    BTW, just finished "Lincoln in the Bardo." Loved it. LOVED it.

    1. I only just found out about the TV movie (when I was trying to find out how many pages the print copy had!) - can't quite see Jane Fonda in the role, but I bet she was the one who drove the project?
      SO glad you liked LIncoln in the Bardo!

    2. Yes, that's why I doubted my memory (of Fonda)!

  6. I HAVE to read this - I'm going to order it today. I, too, saw the movie, and have never forgotten the tracheotomy scene... Also, I think, the other scene which you hint at (does it involve a goods' yard...?)

    1. Yes that's the one. I don't know how I missed both film and book so completely. And it is such a good book, such good writing, but so in-cheering...


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