Keeping The House by Ellen Baker
Set in the conformist 1950s and reaching back to span two world wars, Ellen Baker’s superb novel is the story of a newlywed who falls in love with a grand abandoned house and begins to unravel dark secrets woven through the generations of a family. Like Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt in its intimate portrayal of women’s lives, and reminiscent of novels by Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, Keeping the House is a rich tapestry of a novel that introduces a wonderful new fiction writer.
When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers all too soon that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and fretting about dinner menus. She even gives up her dream of flying an airplane, trying instead to fit in at the stuffy Ladies Aid quilting circle. Soon, though, her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by the vacant house on the hill. As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of three generations of Mickelson men and women: Wilma Mickelson, who came to Pine Rapids as a new bride in 1896 and fell in love with a man who was not her husband; her oldest son, Jack, who fought as a Marine in the trenches of World War I; and Jack’s son, JJ, a troubled veteran of World War II, who returns home to discover Dolly in his grandparents’ house.
Beautifully written and atmospheric, Keeping the House illuminates the courage it takes to shape and reshape a life, and the difficulty of ever knowing the truth about another person’s desires. Keeping the House is an unforgettable novel about small-town life and big matters of the heart.
What makes a house a home and a marriage a bond of trust, love and safety? Both of these ideologies are challenged in Ellen Baker’s Keeping the House. Set in the 1950s, we are introduced to the multigenerational Mickelson Family as we are taken on a kaleidescope journey through pre-war, war time, and post-war eras. Baker takes us on travels through time and generation, delving into the hearts and souls of the epic family’s skeletons through Dolly and her new “pal”
JJ as Dolly helps “keep the house” for JJ. It becomes her getaway, safe haven.
I don’t want to give too much away, because I think it’s absolutely worth reading for yourself to read as all the fun intricacies unfold before your eyes like you’re watching a movie as the words fly across the pages and into life. What I really appreciated about this book is how artfully and gently Baker crafts the relationship between Dolly and JJ, both there for each other in a time of loneliness, yet eventually realizing that they can’t solve each other’s problems by running away or running to each other, or somewhere else. Yet, somehow, simultaneously, Baker reconnects Byron and Dolly to a place even better than they probably could have hoped for- a place where they can be open, free, and communicate to each other their expectations, hopes and dreams.
The epilogue left me with a big content grin. I laughed out loud as this image came to my mind after I shut the last page on this amazing novel:
8 down, 44 to go!
On deck- Olive Kitteridge: Audiobook (in progress) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society