The allure of houses has always drawn me. When I was in grade school in Seattle, Washington, I loved to visit my best friend’s house. Her family’s home stood on a hill overlooking Lake Union. The first floor held a huge entryway with an ornate staircase, as well as a living room, a den, a dining room, and a massive kitchen. Built in the early part of the 20th century, the original owners obviously had been people of means, with money enough to employ servants.
In one corner of the kitchen, a narrow back staircase led upstairs. Heading for adventure, my friend and I would scamper up this staircase to the second floor. There, on a tiny landing, we had three choices: To our left was a small room that had once been the housekeeper’s quarters. Straight ahead, a door opened onto the hallway to the house’s main bedrooms. And to our right, an even narrower stairway led up to the attic. The attic had housed the maids, as well as a large main room used for storage.
This house fascinated me, especially the kitchen with its separate staircase. Clearly, the servants did not mingle with the family. To my childhood imagination, it felt like the house held secrets.
When I began to write Halstad House, I patterned the kitchen, back staircase, housekeeper’s room (which became Grace’s sewing room), the landing, and the attic after my friend’s house. For the rest, I used my imagination. I’ve always loved wrap-around porches so I gave Halstad House three. How satisfying it’s been to design an entire house without spending a cent or lifting a hammer!
Halstad House is the setting for my book, but to me, it is much more. It is a refuge in the storm, a safe place to laugh or cry, and somewhere my characters and my readers alike can sit down with a cup of tea, put up their feet, and experience the “warm cozies.”
I love to watch home renovation programs on HGTV. I love to drive around and look at houses. I also love to read stories in which houses are an integral part–sometimes almost as important as the characters themselves.
Below are my picks for other books where houses play important roles. These are not full-out reviews of each book or series, just a quick look at stories containing houses as essential components in the settings.
I really enjoy Angela’s easy-to-read writing style. In this three-book series, she uses humor, authentic characters, and sometimes painful but realistic circumstances to weave a story of the protagonist’s journey after loss. Jennifer Graham travels with her two sons and her widowed mother, from Washington D.C. to a small town in Florida. The house in her story? A large Victorian funeral home, complete with living quarters, that she has inherited from her uncle.
I loved the vivid descriptions of the shabby, well-worn interior, obviously in need of an upgrade. On top of that, she has the obstacles of a deteriorating roof, air-conditioning system (Florida, remember?), electrical set-up, and a myriad of other problems. Instead of turning tail and fleeing back to Washington D.C., Jennifer makes a plan, rolls up her sleeves, and grabs the nearest yellow pages in search of repairmen.
The slow restoration of the house goes hand-in-hand with Jennifer’s own path to restoration. I laughed, I had tears in my eyes, and spiritual insights tugged at my heart.
This story takes place on the American prairie in the late 1880s. Rose Brownlee, like Abraham, sets out on a God-directed journey to an unknown land. She has come from a place of great loss back east, leaves her mother, brother, and sister-in-law, not knowing what awaits her. Nevertheless, she carries with her a sense of purpose and a growing excitement that she is doing what she is called to do.
The house in her story? A run-down one-room homestead. Rose knows her own mind and after hiring a neighbor and his son to repair the structure, she brings out sketches she’s drawn with ideas for the house–including large windows, making the interior two rooms, and adding a wrap-around veranda.
Through perseverance, imagination, and hours of hard work, Rose turns the homestead into a comfortable home, replete with thriving vegetable and flower gardens.
The book chronicles the ups and downs of Rose’s life far away from the city, the spacious home, and the family she left behind. Here on the prairie, she finds a deeper, truer relationship with God, a new family of friends, and a second chance at love.
There are a total of eight books in the series, though they don’t all feature houses as prominently as the first.
Aggie, a twenty-two-year-old recent college graduate, “inherits” her eight nieces and nephews, including two sets of twins, after the tragic deaths of her sister and brother-in-law.
Because of her sister’s devious, controlling, and conniving mother-in-law, Aggie decides to move the family to a new home. She learns of a large older home that has been empty for years that the county has put on the market for back taxes. Though structurally sound, the house needs a multitude of repairs and alterations.
It is actually the house of her dreams–a cross between an old farmhouse and a “Victorian mausoleum,” with a turret, bay window, railed porch, enough bedrooms and bathrooms for them all, plus an orchard, plenty of room for a huge garden, a meadow, and an abandoned barn. Everything she could ask for, right?
Thus begins her fixer-upper frenzy. As the hard work of restoration proceeds room by room during the four-book series, Aggie must deal with her grief over the loss of a beloved sister, as well as helping her nieces and nephews deal with theirs, all while raising eight children–from a baby all the way up to a twelve-year-old. Plus, after much deliberation, she decides to take the route of homeschooling them.
The entire series is written in a free and easy style with a wonderful combination of humor, realism, and spiritual insights. Thrown into motherhood overnight (and she makes it clear she wouldn’t have it any other way), Aggie struggles with the normal challenges facing any parent–times eight. Add in the house remodel, trying to figure out finances, getting everyone to church (or anywhere for that matter) on time, advice and raised eyebrows from some folks, normal escapades kids dream up, and homeschooling while overseeing a baby and twin three-year-olds. Whew! Life in their household often mimics–as my grandmother used to say–“Trying to catch grasshoppers with a spoon.” Oh, and toss in the budding love interest, too.
I love this series!
The house in my own book? The 24-year-old protagonist Grace Halstad has turned their rambling white residence into a boarding house. The book tells of Grace’s spiritual journey as she provides a home and a livelihood for herself and her precocious four-year-old daughter, as well as a rambunctious beagle and an exceedingly spoiled cat.
The story is told with both poignancy and humor, illustrating the joys and heartaches of life, the comfort of family, and the sometimes messy path of faith.
I have included two Grace Livingston Hill novels in my list of picks. If you haven’t read any of her books (She was a prolific writer!) be aware that, as an early 20th-century novelist, her writing style is much more flowery than modern novelists typically employ. Readers may find some of her plots or subplots a little melodramatic but she’s still worth the read.
This tells the story of Shirley Hollister and her family. Shirley, the eldest sibling, searches for a way to get her brother, sisters, and ailing widowed mother out of a tiny, depressing tenement in the city. One day she discovers an unused barn out in the country and is convinced it could be made into a proper home. She contacts the owner, a young businessman who is so impressed with her that he goes to great lengths to remodel the barn into a lovely residence. (What self-respecting barn does not have a charming stone fireplace?)
The renovations made to transform the barn are enchanting–hence the title. The story is replete with good guys, bad guys, and lessons to be learned.
The protagonist in this story, Joyce Radway, is an independent young woman preparing to be a teacher. When her great-aunt dies and Joyce’s selfish cousin and his wife take charge of the house they all lived in, they relegate her to the position of a servant. She knows this is not what God wants of her and, with few options open, one evening she simply walks away. She has $50 in her purse and the clothes on her back. That’s it.
In her haste to leave, she stumbles upon a group of bootleggers committing a crime. One of the men is a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years. Two things transpire as a result. Her old friend is horrified she’s seen him in this situation. He eventually comes to know the Lord and his life is turned around. The rest of the bootleggers, though, plot to find and silence her so she can’t give them away.
The house in this novel? The original “tiny house.” Joyce happens upon a structure–not much larger than a shed–and she is able to obtain it and move it to a new site. (The side yard belonging to a wealthy woman she has befriended.) With Joyce’s can-do attitude and plenty of resourcefulness, she really does turn the shed into a comfortable little home. She even makes her own mattress rather than spend the money on a hard cot.
This was an enjoyable read.
Honorable Movie Mentions
I am including three old movies in my list of picks because I love the houses featured in them!
based on the book Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes
This is the story of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. Theirs is a large, multi-storied house filled with Papa, Mama, four children, a boarder, and a cat named Uncle Elizabeth. The book and movie showcase life in a close-knit family, interspersing humor with drama. One of my favorites.
based on the book Life with Father by Clarence Day
The action takes place in the late 19th century in New York City. The house in this movie is amazing. The main floor holds the dining room, front room, and an elegant entry. Bedrooms, bathrooms, and Mr. Day’s study are on the second floor.
And the kitchen? It’s in the basement. Food comes up to the dining-room via a dumbwaiter. If Mr. Day wants to relay a message to the cook (which he does regularly) he stomps his foot on the floor. The cooks scurries upstairs. In one scene, she enters the dining-room and says, “What’s wanting?” to which Mr. Day points to the bacon and replies, “This is good!” Knowing how persnickety the head of the house is, the cook beams and heads back downstairs.
I loved the fancy woodwork in the rooms, the old fashioned ornate windows, and the beautiful furnishings. Another fun movie.
based on the books Cheaper by the Dozen & Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
This movie is based on the true story of the Gilbreth family: Frank, Lillian, and their twelve children. Both parents are efficiency experts. Again, the action takes place in the early part of the 20th century, this time in Mont Claire, New Jersey. The house in the movie? An enormous three-story Victorian mansion. The house contains plenty of bedrooms, bathrooms, and living space for the large family.
Along with plenty of space, there is plenty of laughter (and a few tears) in this story of family life. I loved the interactions between the family members, particularly between the parents–lots of love and respect there. It’s worth searching out the original 1950 movie.
Taking a closer look at these books and movies, I realize the houses are not just foundations, walls, roofs, and furniture. They are homes–each in its own way offering a safe haven for family and friends. A place to belong. A place to be accepted. A place to be loved.
That is the allure of houses. The allure of home.
Photographs by Hannah Acheson Photography