A Place in the Country

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In Sleeping Arrangements, Laura Shaine Cunningham introduced us to her childhood self. Now she tells us what became of that little girl—and her lifelong quest to find the perfect country home.

Author Biography: Laura Shaine Cunningham is a playwright and journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Vogue, and Mirabella, among other publications. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for her writing and theatrical ...

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In Sleeping Arrangements, Laura Shaine Cunningham introduced us to her childhood self. Now she tells us what became of that little girl—and her lifelong quest to find the perfect country home.

Author Biography: Laura Shaine Cunningham is a playwright and journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Vogue, and Mirabella, among other publications. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for her writing and theatrical work, Cunningham divides her time between New York City and her "place in the country."

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Editorial Reviews

...required reading for anyone who's ever fantasized about stepping out of civilization and becoming...country girl-for a while.
— October 2000
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her well-received memoir, Sleeping Arrangements (1989), Cunningham chronicled her years growing up in the Bronx. Now, in a book dedicated to all the city people "who love nature with a passion that is near demented in its innocence," the playwright and journalist recounts a lifelong love of greenery, and the pleasure and frustration she has found living in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York. As a child, Cunningham and her unmarried mother, Rose, were often forced to share cramped apartments with relatives, though they dreamed of owning "a private home" in the country. Then, when Cunningham was eight, her mother died. Years later, as a young married woman, she rented a house in a suburb of New York. Although she reveled in easy access to forest and mountain, the gated community didn't satisfy Cunningham's fantasy of country life, and after some 10 years of searching, she found her dream house in the mountains. Adjacent to a working dairy farm, the Inn was part of a huge estate that a titled English couple were gradually selling off, although they remained as neighbors. Cunningham recounts with wry humor her conversion from innocent newcomer to country sophisticate, a process that included raising chickens (whose eggs, she figures, cost her $25 a dozen), feeding two ornery goats and tending an ill-fated garden. Her pastoral life has been interrupted by serious illness, counterbalanced by her joy in adopting her two little girls. She passes quickly over the breakup of her marriage and concludes by describing her uneasy adjustment to new neighbors--a swami and his followers. Throughout, Cunningham's lovely portrait of country scenes will engage readers who, like her, have dreamed of the glories of a rural retreat. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Cunningham's memoir, a case for creative nonfiction, embodies Robert Frost's remark that "locality gives art." Now a playwright and journalist whose fiction has been published in The New Yorker and elsewhere, she offers compelling descriptions of her childhood in the Bronx, of a first country home 40 miles north of the city in a gated community of rentals and, later, of a real home in the country surrounded by farmers, animals, and other eccentric life forms. Humor serves as a cornerstone of her well-crafted prose and provides a counterbalance to the sometimes serious experiences of a child, and then an adult, in search of a country home. This memoir draws you in as a novel might, capturing your interest with plot and characters--Cunningham's mother, Rosie; her uncles Len and Gabe, who become "guardians of her fate"; and an intriguing array of neighbors are well worth meeting. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.--Sue Samson, Univ. of Montana Lib., Missoula Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Michiko Kakutan
[E]ngaging...Adept at poking fun at her and her husband's city-slicker dreams, Ms. Cunningham also gives us some delightful portraits of the people who became their neighbors and friends...
The New York Times
Rhonda Johnson
This addition to the dream–home genre is a breath of fresh air.
Entertainment Weekly
Julia Dahl
A Place in the Country is required reading for anyone who's ever fantasized about stepping out of civilization and becoming a berry gathering, lemonade sipping, country girl-for a while.
Laura Shapiro
Cunningham makes it delightfully clear that the horrors of the simple life, from snakes to nasty neighbors, are right up front with the bliss. And she's a sharp and witty writer.
The New York Times Book Review
New York Post
Mixing humor, pastoral images and sharply etched characterizations of her family and neighbors, Cunningham draws you in as she describes her search for just the right retreat.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573221573
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/26/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura Shaine Cunningham is a playwright and journalist whose fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Vogue, and Mirabella, among other publications. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for her writing and theatrical work, Cunningham divides her time between New York City and her "place in the country."

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Desire was there first, before memory. I can't remember a time when I didn't long for "a place in the country." From the beginning, I can recall the warmth of my mother's handclasp as we toured model homes on sequential Sundays, seeking, always seeking, the house of our dreams. Those dreams wafted a specific scent: fresh shellac and new paint.

    "Someday," my mother, Rosie, would say, as we walked through the vacant rooms full of hope, "we'll have a place of our own. A private house outside the city."

    "A private house." Even today, those words hold a potent magic for me. Then, they were more than enough to propel us every weekend on buses and trains to differing destinations we called the "country." On the buses, I commandeered the window seat, the better to scan the roadside, my eyes searching for the corridors of evergreen, the hidden paths that led to some ultimate, secret oasis. It seemed to me that the scenery flashed by too fast. Was that a house, set back in the woods? A haunted house, abandoned. Perhaps available? I hunted for the shadows, too, for pure adventure—was that rock overhang hiding a cave?

    I flush to realize how close the "country" was then. We seldom left the city limits, except in spirit. Wherever the shade extended for more than a few feet and sunlight dappled the leaves—that was our "country." I'm embarrassed to admit I confused the Mount Vernon that borders the Bronx with the "real" Mount Vernon, where president George Washington lived, down in Virginia. Both my mother and I regarded suburbs like Rockville Centre, LongIsland, as rustic.

    One of the country homes we coveted stood in pitiful proximity to our Bronx high-rise apartment building, AnaMor Towers (named for its owners, Anna and Morris Snezak). My first dream house of record was a cottage a block away, a clapboard house that had been left after the construction boom of the fifties leveled most of the South Bronx. While the rest of the neighborhood had given way to tall brick apartment houses with deluded names ("Roxy's Mansion," "The Albermarie"), one small white farmhouse remained. The cottage stood, constricted between high rises, so squeezed by progress that it looked as if its windows would pop.

    A little girl lived in the private house. She seemed as unlikely as the cottage itself, as if she, with her pigtails and gingham jumper, had been transported along with her house, like Dorothy to the Land of Oz. This impression was heightened by the angle at which the house seemed to tilt, following the descent of the street.

    Every morning, on my way downhill to the public school, I passed this house. I never ceased to marvel at the way the girl—who had the equally unlikely name of Orietta—flew from her own front door and raced down a set of plank steps to the sidewalk. It may not be easy for people who have always lived in private houses to understand how exotic this simple action appeared: a girl, flying through her own front door, straight to the outside, without having to navigate the usual urban intermediary zones—the hallway, the elevator, the lobby, the foyer—before finally reaching the street. She never needed to be buzzed in. Her door seemed always to be unlocked.

    Orietta had her own flower garden, albeit a skinny urban version—a lone line of tulips bracketed by a metal guard to keep out poodles who might lift a leg on her blossoms. Sparse and endangered as it was, it was still a flower garden, and Orietta could be spotted watering it, even plucking the occasional bloom. In summer, the entire house appeared trimmed in morning glory vines, a living valentine to the past. In winter, her narrow yard seemed to accumulate more and better-textured snow. Orietta had her own shovel, and we could see her dig a white-walled path to her front step. She could, with her brothers and sisters, pack the excess snow into a bona fide snowman, complete with corncob pipe jutting from his chill mouth.

    During every season, the country house seemed to emit a light different from that of ordinary dwellings, one more lemon-colored. Warm drafts of odor wafted from the ever-baking oven inside—the aromas of hot bread, cookies, and cakes. Some days the scent was so strong, so spicy and enticing, it anesthetized me in midstep; I would have to stop halfway up the hill on my walk back from school.

    The world of the country house struck me as another culture. There always seemed to be someone inside, calling out that supper was ready or to remember your hat or your gloves. Every time the door flew open, I could glimpse a center hall and a wooden staircase. Children could be seen running down that staircase, pell-mell, from what I imagined to be a warren of bedrooms in the even more exotic territory of the upstairs.

    To me, an upstairs was the height of luxury. Everyone I knew lived in apartments. You were judged by the size of your apartment. I envied girls who had their own rooms, who inhabited a junior four instead of a one bedroom or a studio. My mother and I lived in what was called an efficiency—a studio with a kitchenette along one wall, and a bath. Because my mother worked long hours in the netherworld of downtown, I often spent my after-school weekday afternoons alone in that one-room apartment that my mother had decorated for us.

    Life inside that frame house must be very different, I thought. Countless children seemed to run in and out, without any need of keys. As I watched them, I felt a pressure in my chest, right behind the dog tags that I had to wear, the tags that bore my name, my mother's name, my birthdate, and which linked me, bead by bead, to the unwritten fate of my father, who, I was told, had been "lost in the war." The tags themselves were a little scary. They would be used to identify me if some unknown, awful thing were to happen to me. The tags related, too, to the frequent atomic bomb drills at P.S. 35, when, at the wail of a siren, all the children had to duck under the desks to await possible annihilation.

    The bomb never landed on me, but those tags continued to hang heavy, along with my set of keys, which hung from the same chain. I carried three keys—one to the lobby of AnaMor Towers, and one each to the top and bottom locks of 3M, the studio I shared with my mother, Rosie.

    I used my keys to let myself into 3M, dense in its atmosphere of solitude. More than once, I forgot to wear my keys and dog tags, and when I reached AnaMor Towers, stood on the welcome mat and wept. Even though I knew, at age six, that my fear was unrealistic, I was afraid that without the keys I might never again be admitted to a home I could call my own. The sanctuary of 3M had been too hard won. Before we could afford that apartment, my mother and I had lived in a holding pattern, moving from one relative's apartment to another, being accommodated in odd slices of space. We'd slept in foyers, entry nooks, living rooms. For a time, we slept under a long mahogany dining table. For the first four years of my life, Rosie and I had been transient, taking up as little space as possible in other people's homes.

    These apartments were already cramped. My aunt Tessa lived so tight, we had to squeeze sideways through her living/dining room, passing through a crevasse created by looming bookcases and an upright piano. Living there was an exercise in compression. The apartment was set into a complex of subsidized buildings called the Dorchester Houses. The design had been inspired by feudal times and captured the repression of that era. A half-dozen buildings were grouped around a sunless courtyard that held limp, dying trees. The trees were supported by girdles, as were most of the women tenants. The daytime population on view were stocky housewives who seemed to have rolled over from the Slavic countries pushing loaded carts.

    The gimlet-eyed apartment buildings were vast, but they had been designed without generosity. There was no main entrance or gracious lobby. Each "sector" had its separate entry, a narrow door at the top of a stoop that was pitched too steep. Entering, one had the sensation of lurching into the building, then being constricted into an elevator packed with pregnant women pushing prams. The buildings smelled of cooking cabbage and garbage incineration.

    We lived in 5R, my aunt Tessa's apartment. We were seven people in three rooms. Because of the number of people and the oversized furniture, 5R seemed more storage unit than habitat. The living room was lined with the ceiling-high bookcases, piano, and a breakfront. The dining table filled the center of the room, seven chairs jammed against it. There was no space for the sofa, so it sat, wedged against the window and the radiator, becoming in winter, a literal hotseat.

    At the rear of 5R were two tiny bedrooms—the master, where Aunt Tessa slept with her husband, Saul, a young Russian-born rabbi. They lay on twin beds, surrounded by stacks of books (his) and recipe files (hers). My aunt Tessa collected recipes, hundreds of recipes that she planned to try someday, just as my mother and I planned to move to a private house. The second bedroom held their three teenage sons, my boy cousins, who lay stacked on bunk beds amidst the chaos of basketballs, hockey sticks, bats, and an inanimate fourth brother, the dummy Charlie McCarthy. Every time my aunt screamed, "Go to your room!" her boys had the perfect retort—"How?" The door to their room could open only partway.

    There was a single bathroom for all seven of us. Every morning, a conga line of urinary urgency formed outside the door. "Emergency!" was a cry that was often heard; everyone else crossed their legs and danced. Every evening, the adults tended to find a position and remain in place. The boys bounced basketballs against the ceiling and ricocheted off the walls.

    Adding to the general confusion was the punctuation provided by actual alarms—5R faced a fire engine company. Night and day, fire trucks roared forth, sirens screaming, giving vehicular voice to our frustrations. From age one to three, I lived there, accustomed to emergency, to the constant need for more air, more space. My aunt was always opening the windows to take advantage of 5R's single virtue, what she called its "excellent cross-ventilation." Every day, the adults cried out for more Luft, Luft being a breeze of fresh air or something indefinably better—a draft of hope, a whiff of escape. "Luft," they said. "We need more Luft."

    All spring and summer, the windows were kept open. The windows led to exterior extensions of our living space—the fire escapes and the tarry subroof. Every day, my uncle Saul, always attired in his rabbinical yarmulke and summer outfit of undershirt and suspendered trousers, would climb out the bedroom window to the asphalt terrace beyond. Often, he lifted me over the windowsill so that I could help him tend his vegetable garden.

    This was my first farm—Uncle Saul's rows of balsa-wood boxes packed with dug-up park dirt. We had no gardening tools, so we used urban substitutes from 5R we watered with a juice pitcher, dug with a soup spoon or a kiddie shovel. In spite of our equipment, we produced bumper crops. By midsummer, the tomato plants stood high and tangled, drooping under the weight of their red fruits. The tomatoes were so big and juicy that they split under the pressure of their own growth. I was told that I could pick and eat the "broken" ones straight from the vine. I can still taste their salt-sweetness, feel their skin burst to the bite. As exciting as their flavor was the tomatoes' green perfume, the fragrance of farms far away.

    Uncle Saul hovered over his vegetables. He walked that outdoor aisle between his balsa-wood boxes, watering here, pinching there, picking here. He was a sweet man, with brown eyes liquid with intellect: a gaze that addressed you more often than his voice did. He was so quiet, I cannot hear him, even in memory. But I do remember him holding me, helping me over the window ledge, guiding my hand with the water pitcher.

    Saul was the opposite of his wife, my aunt Tessa, who shrieked, "Don't make me scream! I'm hoarse from shouting!" She yelled continually, trying to discipline her three sons, who leaped away from her, mischievous, rebounding off the confines of our constricted world. Tessa had two verbal styles—the yelling and a monologue on her own cheerfulness: "They call me Mrs. Sunshine. Wherever I go, I brighten every room." In the crowded living/dining room, Uncle Saul sat at the table, sometimes resting his cheek on his Talmudic studies. In summer, weather permitting, he climbed out the window to tend his crops.

    There was something off with Aunt Tessa and Uncle Saul's eldest son, Willy. Willy slurred his speech; he dragged his feet. His face appeared sloped, distorted, like the reflection on the back of a spoon. His big brown eyes were like his father's, but they protruded slightly, showing the whites. It made him appear melancholic; his eyelids drooped. His hands hung heavy, too, and it seemed he did not know what to do with them, until he took my hand in his: for a time, when I was three and Willy was thirteen, we were inseparable, and it was he who led me closer to what we regarded as the country.

    Most afternoons, Willy took me for a walk. He seemed not to have any friends, and I needed minding. Our needs meshed. Every day, we walked farther and farther, until we reached a place where the pavement ended and marsh grass began.

    These vacant lots were not pristine. Refuse and rubble, even the rusted shells of wrecked cars, lay hidden in the grass. Willy and I would explore, poking through the underbrush for interesting bits of trash. One afternoon, we walked farther than we had ever gone before and discovered an old steamer chest. We unlocked the chest, and it exhaled a musk to match any mushroom. Inside the trunk, papers had almost turned to compost. But the chest had once held items of value; it was beribboned within, divided into tiny drawers and compartments. Willy and I called it the "treasure chest."

    Just past the treasure chest, the marsh grass began to grow in earnest, high enough to hide the trash, even the old stoves that lay scattered like dominoes. As we walked on, the garbage receded and the grass and scrub bushes dominated. Birds nested, and an occasional rabbit hopped past. For the first time, I could see a horizon, detect a curve to the globe of our earth.

    We walked and walked, aware that we were out too late but unable to deny the pull of that horizon line. In the violet urban dusk, the sky fired hot with the magentas of pollution. Willy and I reached a spot where the land seemed to roll down away from us into an expanse of gray-buff wilderness.

    "This is it," he said. "This is the end of the city."

    From that evening on, this place became our destination.

    "Oh, take me there," I'd beg Willy, and he would. And each time we reached that high ground with the view, he said in exactly the same important tone, the voice of the explorers Lewis and Clark at the Continental Divide:

    "This is it. This is the end of the city."

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Customer Reviews

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( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2001

    The best book ever on country 'dream house's

    All my life, I dreamed of leaving the city for that sweet little country place. Laura Cunningham did just that and the results are hilarious, tender...and instructive. I read a chapter in The New Yorker and now this book is finally in paperback. What a treat. Just as good as her last, Sleeping Arrangements,which tells her story of being raised by two uncles. This is a Cinderella story of a city girl whose dream comes true. She's inspiring and funny, a rare combination! The story of her chicken, is priceless.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    I just finished reading Sleeping Arrangements and was captivated by this brilliant, charming writer. I identify completely with this book too. The same city girl, orphan I loved so much, now seeks out a perfect country place...and finds it! A happy ending, with beautiful, gorgeous stunning prose and funny to boot! A classic, like the Egg and I , for the millennium.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    This book is so truthful and delightful, I could swear it was my own story. I too, grew up in the city in a tiny apartment and believed all would be well if we could just get a place in the country. This is a dream come true for the author and for me. She lives on something like Tara! What a Cinderella story...she grew up in the Bronx. I love her other book, Sleeping Arrangements What a kick. And this one is funny, when she gets all the useless barn animals, especially Mr. Chicken and the goose, Arnold. The goats are a kick too. A hoot! And inspiring writing, very tender and true.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    No wonder this made so many 'Best' lists. the best book I've read in a year or two. If you ever bought a house or a country place, you will identify completely with the author who is a city girl who ends up on a big estate --she spends $600 to grow a tomato. It is funny--but the hilarity of this is cut with the moving autobiography of a girl who lost her mother in childhood and had some adventures in the wild before finding peace at last. Buy it before you buy property.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    I read about this book in the New York Times...It had a great review. Cover of the Sunday Book Review and was a notable book of the year. For anyone who grew up in an apartment, as I did, sharing a room, this book will become a bedside treasure. I felt the author was telling my story along with hers and I was so happy when she lucked out with a dreamy place. The writing is exquisite: I had bought her other book, Sleeping Arrangements, and this adds to the heart breaking story of a small child, alone in the world, saved by her bachelor uncles. She goes through a lot women especially may identify with --divorce, adopting two orphans. It's a page turner! I laughed and screamed...it is outrageous but also high quality literature and totally moving. An awesome writing achievement.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    I'm an armchair farmer: I dream of having cows, chickens...I loved this book. Reminded me of Green Acres only literary. The writing is spectacular...this woman is very funny, without ever losing her sense of what is important in life. She knows what matters: love, a place to be safe, nature. This is a classic, like her earlier memoir, Sleeping Arrangements, which my wife, keeps by her pillow. What a pair of books-- I have read them each twice. It is a rare treat to find a writer that you just want to keep on reading. And who makes you laugh harder than you cry, which you will, too. These books will help anyone triumph over adversity and have their own dreams come true. Lovable and literary. This is my bible, for when I get that little farm!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2001

    A Place in the Country

    I could not bear to finish. This is so lovely. If you ever dreamed of having a sweet country place, or even went house-hunting, you will be in stitches. I laughed so much, then cried too...because this is a beautiful, beautiful book, so funny and heart-breaking on the same page,I also recommend Sleeping Arrangements, her first book, which goes in to more detail about her childhood,as an orphan raised by two uncles. This is a true story...I hope there will be more books from this very brilliant writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2000

    A Place in the Country

    This book is a keeper...My sister swiped it twice while I was reading it. We both have big country house fantasies and this writer just spoke directly to that dream. If you ever wanted to rock on the porch, swing in a hammock, grow your own tomato, this book is for you. the part where she raises goats and goslings is HYSTERICAL...but her human story as an orphan, a bride, a divorcee, and finally a mother of adopted foreign little girl orphans, is what makes this so heartfelt and unique. it is not often I cry and laugh over the same book...but this one did it. It's a perfect christmas present for the friend with the country house, or anyone who enjoys a fine writer. What a jewel!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2000

    A Place in the Country

    When author laura Shaine Cunningham was a small child, she lived squeezed into an apartment, seven people in three rooms. How she landed her dream house -- a former stagecoach inn on an English lord's estate is a city cinderella story with deeper overtones. As heartbreaking and hilarious as her earlier memoir, Sleeping Arrangements, this is a book to give as a gift to anyone seeking peace in a bucolic surrounding. A modern Egg and I -- I loved the stories of her childhood and the search for the perfect place. I'm glad she found it! Inspiring and illuminating. This is a double pleasure, as memoir of an orphaned city child, hungering for greenery, and as a satirical take on spending $600 to grow a single tomato. Reading this book is like taking a trip down memory lane and checking into a lovely old Inn. More down to earth than Under the Tuscan Sun...sort of a New York version of Gone With the Wind

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2000

    This is a fabulous book - a must-read!

    You won't be able to put 'A Place in the Country' down. It is very moving and beautifully written, capturing the dreams and experiences of the author as a child and later as a mother with two adopted children. This is my favorite of Ms. Cunningham's books. I couldn't recommend it more highly!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2000

    Sheer joy

    This is one of those rare books that make you feel like you've made a new friend. Cunningham gets it all just right -- the lure of the dream house, the pleasures and insanities of actually living there. I laughed out loud often, and as I neared the end, I found myself reading slower and slower, not wanting this book to be over. Ideal summer reading.

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