Excerpt from Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Baker Towers

by Jennifer Haigh

Baker Towers
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2005, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2005, 368 pages

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She sewed sleeves at the Bakerton Dress Company, a low brick building at the other end of town. Each morning Rose watched the neighborhood women tramp there like a civilian army. A few even wore trousers, their hair tied back with kerchiefs. What precisely they did inside the factory, Rose understood only vaguely. The noise was deafening, Dorothy said; the floor manager made her nervous, watching her every minute. After seven months she still hadn’t made production. Rose worried, said nothing. For an unmarried woman, the factory was the only employer in town. If Dorothy were fired she’d be forced to leave, take the train to New York City and find work as a housemaid or cook. Several girls from the neighborhood had done this—quit school at fourteen to become live-in maids for wealthy Jews. The Jews owned stores and drove cars; they needed Polish-speaking maids to wash their many sets of dishes. A few Bakerton girls had even settled there, found city husbands; but for Dorothy this seemed unlikely. Her Polish was sketchy, thanks to Stanley’s rules. And she was terrified of men. At church, in the street, she would not meet their eyes.

Rose laid the baby down. Every morning she carried the heavy cradle downstairs to the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. From upstairs came the sounds of an argument, the younger children getting ready for school.

She went into the parlor and stood at the foot of the stairs. "Joyce!" she called. "Sandy!"

Her younger daughter appeared on the stairs, dressed in a skirt and blouse.

"Where’s your brother?"

"He isn’t ready." Joyce ran a hand through her fine hair, blond like her father’s; she’d inherited the color but not the abundance. "I woke him once but he went back to sleep."

"Sandy!" Rose called.

He came rumbling down the stairs: shirt unbuttoned, socks in hand, hair sticking in all directions.

"See?" Joyce demanded. She was six years older, a sophomore in high school. "I have a test first period. I can’t wait around all day."

Sandy sat heavily on the steps and turned his attention to his socks. "I’m not a baby," he grumbled. "I can walk to school by myself." He was a good-humored child, not prone to sulking, but he would not take criticism from Joyce. His whole life she had mothered him, praised him, flirted with him. Her scorn was intolerable.

Joyce swiped at his hair, a stubborn cowlick that refused to lie flat. "Well, you’re not going anywhere looking like that."

He shrugged her hand away.

"Suit yourself," she said, reddening. "Go to school looking like a bum. Makes no difference to me."

"You go ahead," Rose told Joyce. "I take him." He couldn’t be trusted to walk alone. The last time she’d let him he’d arrived an hour late, having stopped to play with a stray dog.

He followed her into the kitchen. Of all her children he was the most beautiful, with the same pale blue eyes as his father. He had come into the world with a full head of hair, a silvery halo of blond. They’d named him Alexander, for his grandfather; it was Joyce who shortened the name to Sandy. As a toddler, she’d been desperately attached to a doll she’d named after herself; after her brother was born she transferred her affections to Sandy. "My baby!" she’d cry, outraged, when Rose bathed or nursed him. In her mind, Sandy was hers entirely.

Rose scooped the last of the oatmeal into a bowl and poured the boy a cup of coffee. Each morning she made a huge potful, mixed in sugar and cream so that the whole family drank it the same way. In the distance the fire whistle blew, a low whine that rose in pitch, then welled up out of the valley like a mechanical scream.

"What is it?" Sandy asked. "What happened?"

"I don’t know." Rose stared out the window at the number three tipple rising in the distance. She scanned the horizon for smoke. The whistle could mean any number of disasters: a cave-in, an underground fire. At least once a year a miner was killed in an explosion or injured in a rockfall. Just that summer, a neighbor had lost a leg when an underground roof collapsed. She crossed herself, grateful for the noise in the basement, her husband safe at home. This time at least, he had escaped.

The foregoing is excerpted from Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street , New York , NY 10022

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