Bakerton, Pennsylvania , could be Anywhere, USA . It’s a coal-mining town that struggles to redefine its identity after a tragic accident and the 1970s strip away the business that has sustained the residents for decades, in Baker Towers (reviewed here). It’s also home to dozens of families filled with complex characters: the Bernardis, the Lubickis, the Stusicks, and especially the Novaks, who were the novel’s main focus.
Baker Towers was a critically acclaimed novel that won Jennifer Haigh plenty of fans. I was already a fan, having read her most recent novel, Faith, and enjoyed it immensely. But I felt an even stronger connection to the characters in Baker Towers, and their story resonated with me in particular because of my academic background; I majored in labor relations, and the story of a blue-collar company town fraying at the seams during the recession of the 1970s was familiar. So having felt at home in Bakerton before, I was thrilled to learn that the author had just released this collection of short stories set in, around, or in relation to my favorite fictional coal-mining town. (By the way, it’s not necessary to have read Baker Towers in order to enjoy News from Heaven, but if you have, you’ll recognize many of the characters from the novel.)
The stories themselves are lovely, managing to be both gritty and luminous at the same time. There’s the tale of Annie Lubicki, who moves to New York City to be a live-in maid to a Jewish family and forges an unexpected connection there; there’s a glimpse into the life of a lonely schoolteacher who rediscovers a little of her femininity while doing some Christmas shopping; there’s a redemptive story about a man who returns to attend his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary; there’s so much more. And there are several stories featuring the Novak kids, and particularly practical Joyce, who was my favorite. (How I identified with her overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility.)
News from Heaven only contains ten stories, but all ten will tug at the reader’s heartstrings. I know these people. Their lives seem small, but they’re rich and full and heartbreaking and inspiring. Highly recommended.
News from Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh: available here, or support your local indie! (Not an affiliate link.)