Dana Reinhardt's How To Build A House is about a teenage girl whose blended family has fallen apart. Harper's father has divorced her stepmother, the only mother that Harper can remember, and thus separated her from the two stepsisters she lived with for more than 10 years. She feels abandoned and betrayed. An awkward situation with the boy she's been friends with for years doesn't help, either. To get away, she decides to spend her summer vacation working for a volunteer program, building a house for a family that lost their home to a Tennessee tornado. In Tennessee, Harper makes friends, falls in love, and begins the process of putting her own pieces back together. Building a house is a metaphor for building a life.
The small-town Tennessee setting in How To Build A House is well-drawn, down to the feel of the air on Harper's skin. Reinhardt includes just enough detail about home construction to support the story, without turning the book into a manual. The secondary characters are interesting--non-stereotypical, without being quirky. But what really made this book work for me, what made me read it in one sitting, was Harper's voice, wry and observant, even when wounded. I have a dozen passages that I'd like to quote for you, though I'll limit myself to four:
"When you live in California and you have relatives in New York, everything in between feels like a big inconvenience. It's what keeps you from them, or here from there, and you want it out of your way as quickly as possible because your headphones aren't working, and anyway you've already seen the movie three times." (Page 2)
"After a long drive we turn off the highway and spend another twenty-five minutes traversing smaller roads. I notice a pattern. It goes something like: church, church, fast-food restaurant I've never heard of, church, muffler shop, church, church." (Page 19)
"I'm starting to realize that every place comes with its own ubiquitous noise.
In Los Angeles, it's lawnmowers. In New York City, it's cab drivers abusing their horns.
In Bailey, Tennessee, it's bugs." (Page 44)
"She got out and slammed the door.
I thought the window might shatter, but it didn't. The full moon slipped behind a cloud. The only thing left was the sound of glass not breaking." (Page 146)
I love the poetry of "the sound of glass not breaking". Harper feels real to me. Her passion, her personal soapbox, is that she's an environmentalist. I did find her frequent references to this the tiniest bit irritating, but I suspect that this is a realistic reflection of a modern-day, privileged teen from California. For example:
"He herds us all outside. The bus is spewing thick black smoke into the already scorching-hot air around us and I start to do some impossible calculation in my head about whether the bad by-products of trying to do good (individual cereal boxes, foam coffee cups, gas-guzzling buses) outweigh the good deeds themselves.
I get nowhere." (Page 32)
But I absolutely think that these references come across as a window into Harper's personality, rather than some sort of overt message on the part of the author. And I suspect that they'll lend authenticity to the target audience for the book.
How To Build A House does have some sexual content. There's nothing graphic, but several of couples in the book are known to be having sex (and one girl who could be isn't, for religious reasons). The teens make their own decisions about this, and the adults mainly have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. I think that this content makes it more a high school than a middle school book. But I also think that it's central to the story.
I recommend How To Build A House to fans of Reinhardt's first book, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, and to fans of realistic young adult fiction in general. It would make an excellent suggestion for teens about to head off on their own, whether to do volunteer work, or simply leaving for college. Recommended.
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication Date: May 27, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Reading Keeps You Sane, Kinnelon Library Teen Blog, Simply Books, Becky's Book Reviews, Abby (the) Librarian, Propernoun.net. See also my review of Reinhardt's first book, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life.
Author Interviews: Cynsations, Bildungsroman, Lectitans, InteractiveReader
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.