Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Review: When the White House Was Ours, by Porter Shreve


The year is 1976, and as the U.S. celebrates its bicentennial, Daniel Truitt moves from the midwest to Washington, D.C., center of the excitement about the celebration, and about the upcoming election.  Daniel's father Pete, a teacher, has been fired from yet another job, and he's got a crazy idea to start an alternative school. Pete's mother Valerie is not so keen on the idea, but she agrees to give it a try. So Pete calls in a favor from an old friend, who rents them a ramshackle mansion in an iffy D.C. neighborhood. Daniel's hippie uncle, his wife, and her lover come to live with them and serve as teachers, and "Our House", a school where the learning is student-directed, is born. Daniel's parents struggle to attract students to the school, but they end up with a ragtag group of kids who don't fit in anywhere else, and the experiment gets under way. But almost as soon as it has begun, outside forces work against the school, and even Daniel's family is in danger of falling apart.

When the White House Was Ours is loosely based on the author's own life, and it definitely feels that way. There's an appealing authenticity to the book, which you feel when reading about the atmospheric setting, and about the complicated family relationships depicted in the story. I could relate to the time period when the novel was set, as I was eleven years old in 1976, when the country was in the clutches of bicentennial fever. I could also relate to the tensions that main character Daniel felt between the conservative elements in society, represented by his father's Republican old friend who rents them their school house, and the more liberal elements of society, represented not only by Jimmy Carter, but also by Daniel's free-thinking parents and his uncle with his hippie friends.

The author definitely brought me back in time to 1976 and my old corduroys and culottes!  His descriptions of things I remember often made me smile.  I also enjoyed the characters very much.  I thought the writer handled Daniel's coming-of-age deftly.  He did a good job portraying the difficulties young people have when they realize the adults around them are just as confused and imperfect as they are.  There were a few missteps, as when Daniel doesn't go to his parents with some information that will definitely make a difference in their lives--it's not necessarily not believable that Daniel keeps the information to himself, as it's clear that Daniel's trust with his father has been broken, but it was still a little frustrating for me. But overall, the author writes convincingly about a boy's coming of age in a confusing time and coming to terms with an unconventional family.

7 comments:

Litlove said...

I really like the premise of this novel which sounds like it has packed some very interesting ingredients together - education in its various guises, troubled adults, alternative vs conservative ideologies and growing up. But reading between the lines of your post it sounds like the situation was great, but the story didn't quite match it in terms of quality? The growing up at school story I liked best was Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club. Very good, but very tied in to UK history.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--you've done your reading between the lines very well--it's true, I liked the premise better than its execution. This, too, was very US-specific, and I think what I liked best about it was how it evoked my own memories of the time!

Lisa said...

This is the first review I've seen of this book. It sounds really good. I remember 1976 very well, too. I remember dressing up in period costume and going to a celebration at the local community building where we did all kinds of activities including making candles by dipping the long wicks into wax over and over.

chantix said...
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Bybee said...

The Bicentennial was everwhere! I think every piece of clothing I had that year was red, white, blue or a mix of the 3. Also, remember the "Bicentennial Moment" on TV between programs?
I'd love to read this book.
Porter Shreve...do you think he's related to Anita?

Gentle Reader said...

lisa--my mom sewed me a red, white and blue colonial dress and mob cap, which I wore to the 4th of July parade in our town, and to a Camp Fire Girls event, where I believe we dipped candles, too--wow, separated at birth, lol!

bybee--yes, the Bicentennial Moment--I remember those! Wow, that takes me back! I don't know if he's related to Anita Shreve, but if so, the book press doesn't say anything about it...but good question :)

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