Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

   It is 1950, and Dolly Magnuson is a twenty year old suburban housewife.  When her husband moves them to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, Dolly is faced with the harsh realization that her marriage is not what she thought it would be.  She is overwhelmed with boredom until she stumbles upon the old Mickelson mansion - a once magnificent home of a well-established family that is now abandoned and in ruins.  Dolly begins asking neighbors about the house's history, and thus begins the interwoven tale of Dolly Magnuson and the Mickelson family.  This novel is both an epic family saga and an intimate portrayal of one woman's life during the churchgoing, apple pie-eating, nuclear family days of the 1950s.

   I really enjoyed this book.  The Mickelson family story is absorbing, and Ellen Baker does an excellent job of weaving together the past and the present, so Dolly's story fits seamlessly in with their own.  I was a little disappointed by the way things turned out for a few of the main characters, but overall, Keeping the House is a wonderful story that encourages readers to reexamine our own domestic lives and consider the communication it takes to maintain them.  This book encompasses passion, sorrow, guilt, tragedy, and the compromises that are made within families and relationships.

   It's a rather long story (530 pages), but definitely worth the time, especially for someone who enjoys accounts of late 19th and early 20th century domestic life.  As a society, we tend to look back on the 1950s as such a calm, peaceful, and happy time in American history, but through this book, Ellen Baker shows us that during this era, our country was still recovering from both World War I and World War II, and the importance of marriage and children was reinforced to serve as a distraction to the emotional, physical, and mental devastation that plagued returning soldiers and their families.  Female readers should really take the time to appreciate what the feminist movement has done for us after reading this novel.