Monday, March 30, 2009

Keeping the House

image from
It's funny, when I was looking for a good vacation book, I specified that I didn't want to read anything about a woman who wants a new living-room set and a baby. But I guess Keeping the House by Ellen Baker could fall broadly into that category, even though it's so much more than that.

The book weaves multiple stories at once. Dolly is embarking on her career as a housewife in 1950, and her husband has moved her to the small Wisconsin town of Pine Rapids, far away from her family and friends, to start a car dealership with an Army buddy. Dolly's having a hard time fitting in, in many respects. Not only are most of the women in the town old enough to be her mother, but Dolly's not so sure she's cut out to be a housewife. She has dreams and ambitions of her own. She misses her family and friends. Her husband is not much company, spending most of his offtime alone or with his buddies, noticing his wife only when he's feeling hungry or horny.

Dolly's ripe for a diversion, and she finds it not in the Quilting Circle, but in a beautiful abandoned house. The builders of the house, the Mickelson family, helped build the town as well, and have long been a source of envy and gossip. There was supposedly a curse on the house, placed there by an Indian chief who buried his daughter there after her suicide, that anyone who disturbed her resting place would be as unlucky in love as his daughter was. Slowly, Dolly teases out the story of the house and how it came to be abandoned, going back fifty years, when a young, spirited woman (much like Dolly) left her friends and family to marry the son of the man who built it and ultimately colliding with the present day, as Dolly takes it upon herself to become savior and caretaker of the ramshackle home and comes face to face with one of the famous Mickelsons.

Baker was curator of a World War II museum, and her work informs the book beautifully. The book explores war and gender roles, and in a way asks the question: who had it rougher in early twentieth century America, the men who were constantly forced by society to prove themselves over and over, or the women who were never even given the chance? It also explores the very idea of "the curse," and what it means to be lucky in love. At 400+ pages, it's definitely a project, but it's a worthwhile and enjoyable one.