Jennifer Haigh’s first short story collection, News From Heaven, traces the slow decay of the fictional Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Bakerston, through 10 linked stories. Introduced to readers in her fine 2005 novel, Baker Towers, Bakerston was a typical mining town. In its heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, the Baker Brothers mines employed virtually every able-bodied male in the town and even built the workers’ cookie-cutter homes. The workers made good wages and the town grew into a tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business. Or so they thought.
When an explosion toppled one of the mines and killed a number of the miners, the dramatic climax of Baker Towers, it rocked the town forever. By the time the 21st Century dawned the company had extracted every bit of coal it could and it closed the mines. Workers went on unemployment or moved South for new jobs, while some suffered worse fates, their lungs scarred by decades in the mines.
While on one level the stories present a microcosm of the nation’s economic woes, their true power lies in the exploration of the inner lives of the families–bound by their daily struggles and the yearning for a better life. Haigh’s characters are a diverse lot, from the disturbed heir to the Baker fortune, living in squalor, to the restless son of the Novak clan, who leaves Bakerston far behind but can never quite escape its grip.
Haigh brings these characters alive with a perceptiveness and eloquence. While the characters know intimate details about their fellow townspeople, there are long-held secrets, hidden mostly out of love. In “Beast and Bird,” the opening story, a Bakerston family sends its young Polish teen-ager to work as a live-in maid for a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, where everything is unfamiliar and nothing makes sense to her. “A Place in the Sun” and its twin story, “To the Stars,” focus on Sandy, the youngest of the Novak clan, who struggles to find a new life on the West Coast, but cannot outrun his demons.
There are tender moments as well. In “Thrift,” 50-year-old Agnes Lubicki, destined to be an aging spinster, unexpectedly finds love with a much younger man. In “The Bottom of Things,” Ray Wojick returns home from Houston as a successful businessman to attend his parents’ 50th anniversary, triggering memories of his troubled brother’s death and his guilt over whether he could have prevented it.
Haigh is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels. In addition to Baker Towers, her works include Mrs. Kimble, The Condition,and Faith.