Sunday, February 2, 2014

The House by J. Patrick Lewis (Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti)

Published in 2009

J. Patrick Lewis' book The House is an incredible book, especially because of the beautiful illustrations by Italian artist and Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Roberto Innocenti. Lewis, an American poet, wrote the text in a series of rhyming quatrains, and the story is told over a time period that spans 100 years. The book is unique in that it is written in first person point-of-view from the house's perspective and has an interesting introduction that provides a glimpse into the story's possible theme:

"The lintel above my door reads 1656, a plague year, the year of my construction. I was built of stone and wood, but with the passage of time, my windows came to see, my eaves to hear. I saw families grow and trees fall. I heard laughter and guns. I came to know storms, hammers and saws, and finally, desertion. Then, one day, children ventured beneath my shadow seeking mushrooms and chestnuts, and I was given new life at the dawn of a modern age. This is my story, from my old hill, of the twentieth century. ~The House, 2009" (opening page).

The House is a sentimental story that reminds me of the books that were written in the early 18th and 19th centuries that were not intended to be read by children but are now considered children's classics. This book could become a children's classic, but I believe it has been written for adults rather than for children. It is a story, however, that should be read by children because of the beautiful illustrations and altering rhyme schemes. Although "the house" was built in 1656, the actual story begins in 1900:

"I listen as the gossip-wind exhales,
Behold! The House of twenty thousand tales.
No longer shut away, a doomed outcast:
The children have discovered me at last."

For more than 300 years, the house stands strong despite the ravages of time, but within a period of just 30 years, the house falls into disrepair and eventual destruction. With the turning of each page, the house serves as a witness to what takes place within and around the house, and the reader sees and feels what the people in the house experience with each changing season. As the years pass, 1900, 1901, 1905, and then a year into World War I (1915), the reader begins to understand that life goes on even for those thrown into the uncertainties of war:

"Midsummer's dress is maid-of-honor green.
The hill girl takes her future by the hand--
A mason-soldier from the bottomland.
Life holds its breath when weddings intervene."

Despite war, weddings take place, children are born, Easter is celebrated, altar boys flee two angry geese, but by the year 1918, the war has taken its toll:

"From wife to widow . . . and the depths of grief.                        
My furnace burns as children leave for school,
Bundled in virtue, books, and classroom fuel.
How beautiful their innocence, how brief."

The third line in this quatrain could be a reference to the "virtuous" books that were written for children in early America, but the exact location of the house is somewhat ambiguous. Although the book is written by an American poet, the setting of the story could be somewhere in Europe because of the appearance of the illustrations.

Winters come and go; the Great Depression hits, the world is thrown into another unprecedented war, World War II. With each passing year, the reader experiences life as it is lived and witnessed by the house:
The House 1936

"Catastrophe, despair and hatred chase
Victims far from the flames that light my face.
I am the final refuge of the poor,
Who suffer but in suffering endure."

And the result of The Great War? More widows who are forced to continue to perform their daily duties despite their pain and suffering; children grow up and move away; all "vestiges of yesterday" seem to disappear, for life must go on. Eventually in 1967, the widow of the house passes away, a funeral is performed, and "quietly tolls the bell." Reality sets in:

"A House without a heart is like a flower
Without the dew."

The sixties and seventies come and go; they are decades of experimentation for the youth who tenant the house. Images of flower children are visible in the illustrations. The children seem to have lost their way, and the house begins to fall into disrepair and questions its future:

"This generation has much youth to spare,
Yet old stones youth alone cannot repair.
I am a House but I am home to none;
My voyage to destiny is nearly done."

Twenty years later after the house has been abandoned, it says, "Mold is my master. . . . And I am captive to this solitude." The wild creatures and the elements have intruded, and the cobblestones are about to disappear. The dark image of lightening striking a tree near the house is symbolic of what is taking place.

The very next page reveals, what I believe to be, the theme of the book. The illustration is dated 1999, the final year before the turn of the century, and shows a bulldozer after it has destroyed the house; it is making way for the new. The theme of the story is beautifully revealed "on the breath of nightingales." Notice how the words are italicized for emphasis:

"Where is the House of twenty thousand tales?                       
I do not recognize my new address.
What became of the maxim, More is less?"

I couldn't help but to think while reading this book, is change always good? Should we totally do away with the old to make way for the new?

As the story concludes, a dramatic shift occurs with the entrance of the "modern" age. The final illustration shows a new house standing where the old house once stood. Every illustration thus far represents the past, but this illustration would be very familiar to the reader; it represents the new. Although the story of the house seemed sad to me at times because I became attached to it as we got to know each other on our journey through time, the final picture provides a glimpse of hope. Time goes on, and a new generation will pick up where the old one left off, but perhaps, just perhaps, we should be careful as to how quickly we embrace this change.

Read The House by J. Patrick Lewis; you will never forget it!

J. Patrick Lewis' Website
Pictures of The House by J. Patrick Lewis
Image Source

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