We first meet Gertie Nevels in an arresting first scene. She sits astride a mule in the middle of a highway, forcing a car to stop. Her baby requires urgent medical attention and she has no way of quickly getting to a doctor. Her strength of personality and dogged persistence convinces the reluctant driver - a military official no less - to take her. But not before she herself performs an emergency tracheotomy on her son to save his life.
Life for Gertie, her husband Clovis and their five children is not easy in rural Kentucky. Everyone is poor. But Gertie is strong, capable and respected , and she has plans for buying their own land which will allow the family to improve their lot. Just when she thinks she has achieved this dream it is snatched away from her as she and the children are forced to join Clovis in Detroit, where he has taken a factory job supporting the war effort.
Life in Detroit is harsh and brutal in many ways. Factory work is hard and often dangerous.The family rents a cheap, poorly constructed house in an overcrowded estate. Wages never go far enough and life in the city requires more expenditure - such as the fridge which doesn't seem to work as it should. The family is forced to buy things on credit and is often is debt. Neighbours and workmates are often in conflict. Religion (Catholic versus anti-Catholic feeling is highlighted) and ethnicity or place of origin (Gertie's family are disparagingly called hillbillies) are just some causes for discord. There is also police corruption and the power of the union to contend with, not to mention the demands of the bosses. People's individuality and humanity must play second fiddle to the needs of the industrial workforce and the consumer based society.
Gertie struggles in this alien environment. She misses the land, doesn't understand how this new urban environment works and isn't sure how she is supposed to behave. She is rendered powerless and not worthy of respect. Slowly she loses everything she values. First Reuben, then Cassie and finally, most poignantly of all, her art. For Gertie is a talented whittler. Yet this is a society that doesn't really have a place for individual, hand crafted items. In an effort to be helpful and ensure his family's survival Clovis forces her to mechanize and standardize, effectively creating a production line in the family home. All joy and satisfaction from the process of whittling is lost to Gertie. She eventually sacrifices a special piece of wood that she has been slowly creating a masterful sculpture from, chopping it up so she can use the wood to mass produced dolls.What happens to Gertie's whittling reflects and mirrors what is happening in the wider society.
The Dollmaker is not an easy read. The rural Kentucky dialect can be tricky to decipher, many scenes are confronting and the Detroit setting is unrelenringly grim. Yet the effort is worth it. Joyce Carol Oates summed it up well , calling it a "brutal, brillant novel" that "has a permanent effect upon the reader". If you haven't already read it you should.