Ellen Baker’s first novel, Keeping the House, has had the kind of success that’s not supposed to be possible anymore. Since it was published in 2007–to good, if occasionally mixed, reviews–its reputation has continued to grow as the book has been passed from hand to hand, from book club to book club. Clearly Baker touched a chord with this tale that sprawled across generations even as it focused on the life of a woman in 1950s America.
Her second novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, will probably have a similar appeal, despite the fact that Baker’s ambitions are even larger. In this book, the reader is led across big jumps in time, from 2000 to 1913, and back again, with long stops in the 1940s. The story is told from several different points of view, as Baker builds the mosaic of tragedy that defines one family’s life over a century.
If I Gave My Heart to Know This is shaped by the shared history that impinges on the lives of its characters. A 1913 tragedy–the Italian Hall panic, or massacre, that occurred in Calumet, Michigan when someone maliciously yelled “Fire!” in a hall crowded with the families of striking mine workers, causing seventy-three deaths–creates an attitude in one young man that affects his wife and family for the next century. The novel centers on three women who have been touched by this man and on their work as welders in a Wisconsin, shipyard during World War II. These women assume the war work when the men have either gone off to fight or have disappeared into their own insecurities.
People disappear often in this novel, sometimes forever, sometimes to reappear decades later; but all are bound by one hardscrabble farm way up in northern Wisconsin. They keep being drawn to this place, and some of the characters allow themselves to be defined by it.
Of the characters who vanish, some hope to forget their connections to the farm and to the people who remain there; others try to remember but with only tentative results. The great-granddaughter of one of the main characters decides “that there was no way to erase memory; instead, you could learn to bear the things that had been, to fold them into who you were and who you would be. You could learn to forgive the fates and move on, and find your way to the light, out from the long, dark shadow of the past.” It is the measure of Ellen Baker’s success that she makes this journey from the shadowed past real and deeply moving.
Ellen Baker reads from I Gave My Heart to Know This at Nicola’s Books on Monday, August 29.