By Parks Lanier, Jr. © 1984
Issue: January, 1984
THE DOLLMAKER by Harriette Arnow appeared thirty years ago, and soon an ABC theater production starring Jane Fonda as Gertie Nevels, the dollmaker, will have everyone talking about this very great novel - again.
After thirty years, it is time for a new generation to discover this gripping story which takes migration, a common Appalachian topic, as its theme. For a long time, we have believed that everyone can live a happy, productive life anywhere. Clovis Nevels believes it, as he uproots his family from the mountains of Kentucky during the closing years of World War II in order to seek work in Detroit. Their story is a parable for thousands of migrants. Some survive; some don’t.
For twelve year old Reuben, life in Detroit is one misery after another. When Gertie visits her son’s school, Reuben’s teacher insists, “He will have to adjust…. That is the most important thing, to learn to live with others, to get along, to adapt one’s self to one’s surroundings… It is for children - especially children like yours - the most important thing - to learn to adjust.”
Reuben cannot, will not adjust. With twenty dollars taken from Clovis’ billfold, Reuben makes his way, alone, back to the mountains. His self-reliance and stubborn non-conformity are more than exercises in the doctrines of Emerson or Thoreau. Reuben proves that Nietzsche was right in saying, “No one can live everywhere, and for anyone who has great tasks to perform that require all his powers, there is a very narrow choice… a mistake in the choice of place and climate can not only alienate a person from his vocation, but keep him from knowing what it is.” Reuben escapes, but Gertie does not.
Like Ruth in tears amid the alien corn, Gertie stands by her vows. Tragedy piles upon tragedy. Gertie, who could have been a great sculptor, takes an ax to her cherished piece of wood saved for a figure of Christ. She is lost, merely a dollmaker.
It was no accident that Jim Wayne Miller entitled his anthology of Appalachian writing I HAVE A PLACE. Reuben’s teacher says place makes no difference; adjustment is all. Jane Fonda may play Gertie Nevel’s remarkably well, but I doubt that she or the movie makers will understand the source of Gertie’s anguish.
The DOLLMAKER is available as Avon paperback, $3.95.