Keeping the House [NOOK Book]

Overview

Set in the conformist 1950s and reaching back to span two world wars, Ellen Baker’ s superb novel is the story of a newlywed who falls in love with a grand abandoned house and begins to unravel dark secrets woven through the generations of a family. Like Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt in its intimate portrayal of women’ s lives, and reminiscent of novels by Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, Keeping the House is a rich tapestry of a ...
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Keeping the House

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Overview

Set in the conformist 1950s and reaching back to span two world wars, Ellen Baker’ s superb novel is the story of a newlywed who falls in love with a grand abandoned house and begins to unravel dark secrets woven through the generations of a family. Like Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt in its intimate portrayal of women’ s lives, and reminiscent of novels by Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, Keeping the House is a rich tapestry of a novel that introduces a wonderful new fiction writer.

When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers all too soon that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and fretting about dinner menus. She even gives up her dream of flying an airplane, trying instead to fit in at the stuffy Ladies Aid quilting circle. Soon, though, her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by the vacant house on the hill. As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of three generations of Mickelson men and women: Wilma Mickelson, who came to Pine Rapids as a new bride in 1896 and fell in love with a man who was not her husband; her oldest son, Jack, who fought as a Marine in the trenches of World War I; and Jack’s son, JJ, a troubled veteran of World War II, who returns home to discover Dolly in his grandparents’ house.

As the crisis in Dolly’s marriage escalates, she not only escapes into JJ’s stories of his family’s past but finds in them parallels to her own life. As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of wartime heroism and passionate love, of the struggles of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.

Beautifully written and atmospheric, Keeping the House illuminates the courage it takes to shape and reshape a life, and the difficulty of ever knowing the truth about another person’s desires. Keeping the House is an unforgettable novel about small-town life and big matters of the heart.



 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Baker's first novel is a long and uneven multigeneration family saga set in small town Wisconsin. In 1896, Wilma comes to the rough backwoods town of Pine Rapids as the alarmed new bride of a lumber baron's first son, John Mickelson. Wilma is already regretting her jump from college to matrimony when she gets off the train and promptly falls in love: first with her brother-in-law, Gust, and then with the beautiful home on a hill that is now hers. Counterpointing Wilma's unhappy trial by marriage and motherhood is a complementary story set in 1950, when another new bride comes to Pine Bluff. Unlike Wilma, Dolly Magnuson married the man she wanted desperately. Unable to conceive, she is determined to be the perfect housewife, a plan that morphs into an obsession with the old Mickelson house, now unlived in and uncared for. The novel expands to encompass the stories of the grown Mickelson children: as Dolly begins taking care of the house, and the Mickelsons begin entering and exiting it by way of a window. Stuffed to bursting with stories of love, loss, revenge, obsession, emotional and physical violence, and general familial mayhem, Baker's book makes readers work to sort out the fates of the most engaging characters. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Newlywed Dolly Magnuson tries to be the perfect 1950s wife but quickly becomes restless in little Pine Rapids, WI, far from friends and family. Intrigued by the grand Michelson house on a hill not far from her bungalow, Dolly begins to visit the abandoned mansion on the sly-dusting, polishing, and imagining the house her own. From quilting circle gossip, Dolly gradually pieces together the story of the ill-fated Michelson family, and when the charmingly dissolute J.J. Michelson moves back to the house, Dolly's boring days become interesting. Unfortunately, the Michelsons, who so fascinate Dolly as she ferrets out their stories, never emerge as than stock characters. Several story lines (interposed with Dolly's) seem promising, but it's hard to care. Even Dolly's new friend J.J. (tormented by his past), Dolly's husband (unwilling to open up), and Dolly herself (sorting out her feelings for both men) never fully come to life. Some humor might have enlivened the tired theme of marriage as compromise in this debut. An optional purchase where women's fiction is popular.
—Laurie A. Cavanaugh

Kirkus Reviews
Baker's sprawling debut recounts the woes of a wealthy Midwestern family from the turn of the 20th century to the dawn of the 1950s. The imposing, vacant Mickelson house attracts the attention of 20-year-old housewife Dolly Magnuson when she arrives in Pine Rapids, Wis., in 1950. Her husband Byron, part owner of a Chrysler dealership, is content with their undistinguished bungalow, but Dolly, ambivalent about a life of dutifully following Good Housekeeping recipes and other dictates for happy homemaking, dreams of restoring and someday owning the Mickelson mansion. She pieces together its history while attending gossipy meetings of the local Ladies Aid and befriends one of the family's youngest and most troubled members. The narrative circles back to follow a second story line beginning in 1896, when newlyweds John and Wilma Mickelson move into the house built by his father, Knute, a Norwegian immigrant who amassed a fortune in the lumber industry. Wilma, a talented pianist who sacrificed school for marriage, is instantly smitten with her brother-in-law Gust, and he with her. Although they repress their desires, her less-than-wifely feelings torment Wilma, especially after Gust dies in a logging accident. Years later, her grief is compounded when favorite son Chase joins the Marines with his older brother Jack and is killed in World War I. Built on land that may be cursed, the house seems to doom successive generations to lucklessness in love. Jack's daughter Elissa falls for a Southern corporal who unwittingly holds a catastrophic family secret; her alcoholic brother JJ, who lost part of his leg in World War II, has an unsettling effect on his Uncle Harry's fiancee-and on Dolly, when shemeets him. But Dolly and JJ, as well as the other remaining Mickelsons, may yet find the means to forge their own destinies. Melodramatic contrivances test the reader's credulity, but appealing characters and a deft, non-linear structure generate interest and suspense. Agent: Marly Russoff/Marly Rusoff & Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588366290
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/10/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 136,173
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Ellen Baker was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and grew up in Wisconsin and Illinois. She earned a masters degree in American studies from the University of Minnesota, worked as curator of a World War II museum, and is currently a bookseller and event coordinator at an independent bookstore. She lives with her husband in Wisconsin.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
HOME OF MRS. CECILIA FRYT
412 W. FIRST STREET, PINE RAPIDS, WISCONSIN
Tuesday, June 13, 1950
Dolly, her brand-new sewing basket hanging from her elbow, set out for Cecilia Fryt’s bearing a fresh plate of Lacy Raisin Wafers, clutching a note in her fist that read “412 W. 1st.” It was a perfect June day, and Dolly, having breezed through her ironing and the rest of her chores this morning, would have preferred to stay at home sunbathing in her backyard with a good book, but she hadn’t dared turn down the invitation she’d received Sunday at church. Having grown up in a small town, she knew in her bones the Herculean efforts that newcomers had to make to get accepted into the best circles, and she wouldn’t have her yet-unborn children suffer because she hadn’t had the sense to help out the Pine Rapids Ladies Aid.
Dolly didn’t know Pine Rapids very well yet, though she knew that the Bear Trap River carved a rock-stippled, elongated S through it, with a babbling rapids punctuating its eastern bend. (Everyone who was anyone, she had been told, lived south of the Bear Trap, but not too far south.) And to find the address on the note, she knew enough to walk straight up Jefferson Avenue to First Street, where the busy downtown hugged the south side of the river’s S.
She turned left onto First Street at Holman’s Market, hurrying along the sidewalk that ran between the storefronts and an unbroken row of Fords, Chevrolets, and Buicks that were nosed up to it. She nearly bumped into a man who was transfixed in front of the lawn mowers in the window of Wasserman’s Hardware, and he turned as though angry, but once he saw her he just raised his eyebrows and smirked, tipping his hat back on his head. She blushed and walked faster, watching that she didn’t collide with anyone else, though it was hard to avoid some of the women who were so intent on their shopping.
It was only three blocks before she left downtown behind, and she was grateful for the shade of the tall maples that lined the sidewalks. Scanning the house numbers, she wondered if Mrs. Fryt could possibly live in the house that Dolly had fallen in love with the day that she and Byron had driven into town in their Chrysler, pulling the trailer loaded with their belongings. She could see the house up ahead, sitting high atop the hill above the river like an aging queen on her throne, three stories of disintegrating dove-gray clapboard and melancholy stained glass, trimmed in an aged white, with a stately front porch and third-floor windows on the side and in front that poked up like pointed caps.
Of course, Byron had just snorted that day when she’d pointed it out to him. “Falling apart, looks like,” he’d scoffed. “Someday we’ll have a brand-new house, Doll. Modern. Nothing old-fashioned like that for my girl.” But for Dolly, it had been love at first sight, though the corner of the porch was caving in and the roof was pockmarked with missing shingles. She had gazed longingly back as the house grew smaller in the Chrysler’s rear window, until it slipped from view.
A block before the grand house, the north side of First Street became all brambles and birches, as the road curved to hug close up against the Bear Trap, and a hill began to rise to its south, so that all the houses were up a set of stairs from the sidewalk, first four steps, then six, then eight, then ten, as the hill got progressively higher. The number 412 hung from the railing of the last set of steps, which led to a tepid green house with a pinched look about it. To reach the dove-gray house from here, Dolly would only have to cross the avenue and run up the hill. She climbed Mrs. Fryt’s steps wistfully, watching the beautiful house all the way up and even as she stood on Mrs. Fryt’s porch, waiting for an answer to the doorbell.
Mrs. Fryt’s door opened reluctantly, as though it was unenthusiastic about visitors, and Mrs. Fryt greeted Dolly with a grunt of assessment. She was taller than Dolly, and stout, with iron-gray hair swept up in a bun, and a face like an old potato. She looked Dolly up and down with caterpillar eyes behind her glasses, eyes that were the same color green as her house. Dolly thought the house had taken the years better than Mrs. Fryt, who must have been nearly eighty.
“Well, come in,” the lady said, without a smile. Dolly obeyed and, once inside, had the immediate sensation of being flattened. Profusions of flowers danced across wallpaper as far as the eye could see, while more than two dozen spider plants dangled from the ceiling, as well as from several coat trees stationed at intervals throughout the room. Chairs, lamps, a radio, and even the upright piano, all festooned with lace doilies, appeared hard-pressed to hold their heads up in the fray; lace curtains hung bravely at the windows. On the lace-covered coffee table was an issue of The Saturday Evening Post and a blue glass vase filled with yellow tulips. The air smelled slightly of mothballs.
“My, what a lovely home you have,” Dolly said.
“Dorothy, is it?” Mrs. Fryt said, her potato chin flapping.
“Dolly,” Dolly said. Oh, this was going to be a disaster. She began to worry that she hadn’t dressed correctly for the occasion: Mrs. Fryt probably didn’t approve of the red ballerina slippers she had just purchased at Birnbaum’s, or her glossy red fingernail polish. And her dress – white, flaring, sleeveless, trimmed in red – was probably too risqué for the Ladies Aid. Well, she was here now, and might as well make the best of it.
She smiled. “I brought some cookies for you, Mrs. Fryt.”
“Why, look there! It’s our newest member!” Emerging from the parlor was Corinne Olson, who had been the one to issue Dolly the invitation. Taking Dolly’s shoulders in her large hands, Corinne looked down at Dolly with a wide smile that narrowed her blue eyes to tiny slits. Her hair, done up in a twist, was so fine and blond that whatever silver there might have been blended right in; a wisp of it had escaped, and skimmed the side of her powdered full-moon face. She wore a blue dress with a delicate white floral pattern, and the girdle underneath was obviously too tight for her full figure. The essence of Corinne – the delicate scent of her powder, especially – reminded Dolly of her grandma, and Dolly swallowed back a lump that rose inexplicably in her throat.
In a blur, the wafers were whisked away, and then Dolly was in the parlor, where the floral and lace theme was perpetuated, only the spider plants being fewer. A brightly patterned quilt on its frame stretched almost the width of the room, and two ladies were seated working on it, facing the parlor door. They stopped their conversation and looked up at Dolly with matching Lutheran smiles.
At Dolly’s side, Corinne Olson brushed her hands together. “Thelma, Jeannette – meet Dolly Magnuson, if you haven’t met her before. She and her husband are new in town – just about a month now, isn’t it, Dolly? She’s moved here from Minnesota and doesn’t know a soul, and so, when I met her at church on Sunday, I said for her to come on over and we’d put her right to work!”
As the ladies greeted her, Dolly felt much too vivid, her hair too black, her lipstick too red. Most of all, she felt much too young – the other ladies all looked old enough to be her mother, if not her grandmother. But, as Corinne Olson sat down facing the window, knees under the quilt, Dolly sat to her right, holding her sewing basket in her lap. With a glance through the fringe of lace curtains, Dolly noticed that the window provided a perfect side view of the grand dove-gray house across the street.
One of the women across the quilt stuck her needle into the quilt top and reached to shake Dolly’s hand. “I’m Thelma Holt,” she said, smiling warmly despite the weariness that showed in her night-blue eyes. She had stylish salt-and-pepper hair, and her elegant sapphire blue dress looked store-window perfect. Her hand was thin but strong; a double strand of real pearls encircled her wrist, and she wore a matching pearl necklace. She had the look of a woman whose husband was somehow important in town – Dolly wondered who Mr. Holt was.
The mousy woman to Thelma’s right smiled a little in Dolly’s direction. “Jeannette Wasserman,” she said quietly, though her eyes, behind a pair of thick glasses, stayed on her work. Her nose twitched once like a rabbit’s.
Mrs. Fryt was making her way around the quilt to sit next to Thelma. “Now, Dolly,” she said, as she squeezed her prodigious rear end behind the quilt frame and lowered herself into a chair, “mind you aren’t like some of the others and only come when it strikes you as convenient. This is important work we’re doing here, making this quilt to raffle off at the fall bazaar. I’m sure Corinne told you, the fall raffle is our biggest fund-raiser of the year. And this year, we’re trying to raise enough money to buy a new organ for the church. We Lutherans may be in the minority in this town, but we do what we can.”
“This quilt pattern is called Wild Goose Chase,” Corinne said, laughing. “Not that we think our goal is unreachable!”
“I’m sure Dolly will do just fine,” Thelma said. “Do you have a smaller needle, Dolly?”
Dolly looked at the needle she held between her fingers, which was a good two inches long. It was the only size she had ever used for all the sewing she had done in her life, which admittedly wasn’t much. She greatly preferred shopping at department stores to constructing her own clothes, and she had always pawned off on her mother whatever hemming and mending couldn’t be altogether avoided. “Smaller?”
“Mercy me,” Mrs. Fryt said. “I suppose you’ve never quilted in your life.”
“Corinne said you all would teach me,” Dolly said.
Thelma tsked at Mrs. Fryt. “Of course we will, Dolly,” she said, digging into her own basket beneath her chair. She came up with a tiny needle and held it up to Dolly, who nearly had to squint to see it winking in the sunlight. “Here, use one of mine. The smaller the needle, the smaller your stitches will be. And that’s what we want, small stitches.” Thelma smiled encouragingly, and Dolly reached out to pinch the needle from her hand. It was no thicker than a piece of thread.
“Now, take some of my thread, too, Dolly,” Thelma said, rolling a spool across the quilt. “And you’ll need a thimble.”
Dolly retrieved her thimble and her tiny scissors from her basket and snipped a long piece of thread from the spool. Now there was the problem of getting the thread through the tiny eye of the needle.
“What does your husband do, Dolly?” Thelma asked, Dolly imagined to distract everyone from her struggle with the needle.
“He’s part owner at the new Chrysler dealership,” Dolly said, poking the thread.
“Oh, yes!” said Thelma. “Roy Ostrem’s new place.”
“What this town needs with another car dealership, I’ll never know,” Mrs. Fryt grumbled. “We already had one.”
“My husband was in the war with Roy Ostrem,” Dolly explained. “That’s why we came here.” Finally, she got the needle threaded.
“Good, Dolly,” Thelma said. “Now put your thimble on the middle finger of your right hand. You’ll want to tie a single knot at the end of the thread, then you’ll put your left hand under the quilt and use your thimble to operate the needle. You see the three layers of fabric: this beautiful top that some of the ladies pieced together, then the cotton batting in the middle, and then the backing. To start, you just put your needle through the top but not through the bottom, all right? And then pull it right back out the top. Your knot should get stuck there in the middle, in the batting. That way, we just have nice stitching showing on both the front and the back of the quilt when we’re done. Why don’t you show her, Corinne?”
Corinne, still trailing the aroma of powder, reached over and quickly accomplished what Thelma had explained. So quickly, in fact, that Dolly still didn’t exactly understand. But she took the needle from Corinne with a grateful smile, anyway.
“Good!” Thelma said. “Now, to stitch, use your thimble to push your needle from the top all the way through the three layers, until you feel a prick on your finger below. But don’t pull your thread out the bottom. Just use the thimble to angle the needle right back up through the top, and you’ll do this as many times as you can at once.”
“And try not to bleed on the quilt,” Mrs. Fryt put in.
Thelma laughed at the look on Dolly’s face. “You’ll feel a little prick on your finger, that’s all. You’ll build calluses, after a while.”
“Watch me, Dolly,” Corinne said, and Dolly observed as with a few deft flicks of Corinne’s wrist her needle sliced through the quilt’s three layers, and four teeny stitches appeared. Then Corinne grasped the needle between thumb and forefinger and pulled the thread all the way through.
“There,” Corinne said. “We’re quilting ‘by the piece,’ you know, so that means all you have to do is go around the edges of each individual piece. Try to stay in about a quarter inch.”
Dolly blanched. There had to be about a thousand triangles in the quilt – scraps left over from the ladies’ sewing projects of the last three decades, Dolly assumed – arranged in an eye-popping pattern of lights and darks that formed diagonal lines around solid muslin squares. And she was expected to sew around each triangle?
But the women, evidently of the opinion that Dolly was now prepared for a career in quilting, had already gone back to their own stitching. Dolly inwardly sighed, and decided she might just as well try.
“Dolly’s husband’s just as cute as can be, by the way,” Corinne said. “I met him at church. He reminds me of the Mickelson boys, you know? Blond-headed, handsome, like they were?”
“Mercy me,” Mrs. Fryt said, stitching. “Do we need another thing in this town to remind us of the Mickelson boys?”
“Who’re the Mickelson boys?” Dolly asked, wrestling with her needle. She had pushed it down through the three layers of the quilt, but she couldn’t get it to angle back up again properly. Not even once, let alone five times.
“They were neighbors of mine,” said Mrs. Fryt, jerking her head toward the window behind her.
Dolly looked out at the house she loved – the front and back porches, the bay windows upstairs and down. The missing shingles. “I saw that house and wondered who lived there,” she said. “It looks almost deserted. But – I think it’s the grandest house!”
“Oh, you bet!” Mrs. Fryt said. “The only house in town with its own hill to stand upon.”
“They were nice Lutherans,” said Thelma flatly. She had put down her needle and was touching the pearls at her neck. Dolly wondered what it would be like to go through life being so elegant.
“Oh, Thelma!” Corinne said, laughing. “You with your rose-colored glasses.”
“Well, they did go to our church for many years,” Thelma said, picking up her needle again. “And they did do a lot for this town.”
“It’s been four years since any of that family has so much as set foot in this town,” Mrs. Fryt said. “Or that house. Ed Wojtas was keeping it heated in the winter and mowing the lawn and whatnot. They kept the electricity and the water on, and every day he’d go in there, regular as clockwork, and flush the toilet upstairs and run a little water through the pipes so they wouldn’t freeze. But now, of course, he passed away in April, and I haven’t seen a light on in there since. They’ve got one of the Peterson boys mowing the lawn now. I see him early every Monday morning, out there clickety-clicking along, always in such a hurry. Heaven only knows what shape the inside of that house is in by now. I keep watching to see if someone will come back for it.”
As though it were a lost glove, a misplaced handbag, Dolly thought. At the same time, a part of her thrilled that it was indeed vacant. “Well, I’d like to live there,” she said. “Is it for sale?”
“Mercy me,” exclaimed Mrs. Fryt. “New in town and already with designs on the Mickelson house.”
Jeannette’s rabbit nose twitched. “No one from Pine Rapids would want to live there.”
Mrs. Fryt said, “Well, you don’t live across the street from a family for going-on sixty years without coming to feel they’re yours for better and worse, Jeannette. At least, I don’t.”
“Mostly worse, with the Mickelsons, I would think,” Corinne said cheerfully.
“Oh, Corinne,” Thelma said.
Mrs. Fryt went on. “I wouldn’t have minded, when I was a young bride and Amos brought me to live in this house. I wouldn’t have minded one bit if the Mickelson house had fallen right to the ground. It seemed so pretentious to me, and every day when I looked out my window there was this reminder that we were not quite. That bay window like a little sister putting her tongue out at me: ‘Look what you can’t have. Look at who you aren’t.’”
“Well, really, Cecilia, who else in Pine Rapids but the Mickelsons would have had marble brought from Italy for their fireplaces?” Corinne said.
“But now I’d as soon put a needle in my own eye as watch it crumbling this way, you know? So slow and painful. Despite Ed Wojtas’s efforts, bless his soul. There’s just no substitute for life in a house. I suppose I’m mellowing in my old age.”
Ha! Dolly thought.
Mrs. Fryt shook her head. “A wrecking ball would be the thing, if it’s got to go.”
Dolly drew in her breath: just the thought of it! But Thelma and Corinne were nodding in agreement.
Mrs. Fryt pushed her glasses up on her nose and tackled her stitching again. “Well, it isn’t any of our business,” she said, undulating her needle through the quilt. “That’s what they told us, isn’t it? If not in so many words.”
Dolly was just ready to ask more when Corinne broke in. “Now, let’s not go airing all Pine Rapids’ dirty laundry when Dolly’s brand-new in town! She won’t want to stay!”
Dolly knitted her brow, but decided to keep quiet. It was her first meeting, after all; it wouldn’t do to ruffle feathers, and it seemed that this Mickelson family was a sore subject with the ladies. So she sat quietly and continued to struggle with the tiny needle, as conversation turned toward the best spots to pick wild raspberries, the current sale on at Wasserman’s Hardware – Dolly gathered that Jeannette’s husband owned the place – and the ladies’ chagrin that their new young pastor was unmarried. Dolly began to imagine a discussion at the synod level of the problem of sending any poor pastor’s wife to Pine Rapids to try to wrest control of the Ladies Aid from Mrs. Fryt, who, in Dolly’s mind, was surely notorious. There was no chance to turn the subject back to the Mickelson house, even when the group took a coffee break. Everyone raved about her Lacy Raisin Wafers, though, until she blushed with pleasure. It was a recipe from her new Good Housekeeping cookbook, so she felt it a special victory that they were received so well.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Keeping the House explores the societal constraints imposed on vari­ous generations of women. Do you feel that Dolly, living as a housewife in the 1950s, has more choices and independence than Wilma did in the late 1800s? Why or why not? Do you think that American society places social constraints on women today? If so, how are the constraints simi­lar or different?

2. The Mickelson house is such a big part of this book that it almost be­comes its own character. Why do you think Dolly was initially so drawn to the house and intrigued by its history? And what do you think some of the different meanings of the title, Keeping the House, could be?

3. Discuss Dolly’s motivations for her initial and then her continued at­tendance in the quilting circle. Do you think she felt compelled to go for more than just curiosity about the Mickelsons?

4. Mrs. Fryt feels quite sure she knows the Mickelsons inside out, but did you believe the stories that she and the other women in the quilting circle told? How did your opinions of the Mickelson family change when seeing them from other points of view?

5.Throughout the novel are quotes from old magazines (particularly from 1950s issues of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping) with advice for housewives. Find a few of these quotes and discuss how these tips illustrate the change or evolution of the twentieth-century housewife. Do you think any of the tips are valid or helpful today?

6. The World Wars provide backdrop for the story. How are these con­flicts portrayed? Do you believe that the hardships that John and JJ ex­perienced in the wars excuse their treatment of women in the novel?

7. Dolly finds herself unable to stifle her desire for a more extraordinary life. Wilma, too, struggles to control her “selfish” desire to play the piano. How does each character handle her conflict between desire and duty? What could each have done to avoid the crises that arose due to her actions? Do you think the obligations that each felt were real or imagined? Do you think Wilma’s and Dolly’s obligations were products of the times in which they lived?

8. Discuss Dolly’s desire for a child. Do you think she truly wanted to have a child, or was she attempting to conceive in order to fit the model of the “perfect housewife”? Is there such an ideal today? How has it changed?

9. Men–particularly Byron, Jack, and John–have interesting roles in this novel. Discuss how they felt about their responsibilities, and how obligations differed for men and for women. How are the roles of men and women different or the same today?

10. Do you think the rumored curse on the Mickelson house impacted the choices that members of the family made? Why or why not? Do you agree or disagree with Dolly’s conclusion that the family used the curse as “an excuse for their bad behavior”? Do you think things might have gone differently for the family had there been no rumor of a curse?

11. Each character in the novel seems to have a different idea about what love is and what it means to love. In 1917, Wilma believes that “her love for [her children] had been holding her hostage in this town, this house, for more than twenty years” (page 73). What do you think Wilma learns about love over the course of the novel? Discuss what JJ, Elissa, Nick, John, Jack, Harry, Byron, and Dolly do for love in the novel, and what they learn about love. Do you think that by the end of the novel they’ve learned enough to stop hurting one another? Or do you think their destructive patterns will continue?

12. Weigh in on the quilting circle’s argument about the Mickelsons (pages 101, 273). Who do you blame for the Mickelson family’s down­fall?

13. Wilma says that John “was the only one who always seemed able to forgive her” (page 348)–do you agree with her perception? Why do you think she, in turn, is unable to forgive John? What do Harry, JJ, and Anne learn about forgiveness? What do Dolly and Byron learn?

14. Despite the fact that the whole Mickelson family has left Pine Rapids, their memory is preserved in the minds of the community mem­bers, and tangible reminders of their existence remain in the house and in the bronze statue of Chase in the courthouse square. In fact, JJ is only lonely for his family after he leaves Pine Rapids, as they seem to be so present in that town. What do you think Dolly learns about the signifi­cance of storytelling and memory? What purpose do you think the Mick­elson family’s story serves for the people of Pine Rapids?

15. In the end, why do you think Elissa and Nick can’t seem to separate from one another? Why do you think Harry keeps their secret from the rest of the family?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 32 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2013

    Good read - interesting - turns out a bit differently than you'd

    Good read - interesting - turns out a bit differently than you'd expect and that's nice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2012

    This could have been a much better book if the author showed any

    This could have been a much better book if the author showed any insight into the characters' behavior, and shared it with the reader. Attributing the bad behavior of several generations to an alleged "curse" lets the writer and the reader off the hook entirely. Instead, the reader is asked to believe that embracing the 50's values of husbands, babies, housework and potlucks, and hanging on to marriages that any sane person would have left years earlier are legitimate answers to life's confusion. Piffle.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2012

    Could not put it down

    Its one of those books where you are desperate to unravel its secrets but hate for it to come to an end. It was depressing and heart breaking, yet inspiring and romantic. It is life, as it was then and as it is now. A timeless book. Highy recommend.

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  • Posted October 15, 2011

    I truly loved this book!!!

    I bought this book at a used book store a few years ago, put in my library and forgot about it until recently. When I did read it I could not put it down. All I wanted to do was read, but did not want the story to end. I really like Ellen's style of writing and have ordered all of her other books. Truly good story telling.

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  • Posted September 6, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Marriage and a world at war

    This book is mainly set in the late 40's and 50's, with some parts of the story going back to the beginning of the Michelson family when a young bride moves in to the family home in 1896. If you like stories of a seemingly simpler time, relationships, and war time, sprinkled with plenty of description so you feel like you're right there in the story, this a great book for you. I will definitely read this authors other book. Her writing is smooth as glass, she keeps me reading. I thought The Help would be the only great book I'd read this year, but I was wrong. This one is great too, and I find they are similar enough in structure and time setting I think fans would like this one too.

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  • Posted July 6, 2011

    Couldn't put it down!

    I just finished Keeping the House. I thoroughly enjoyed several aspects of the book. I liked the plot a lot (and loved the ending). I really liked learning about the 'times' and especially about attitudes of and about women. I liked how the book showed the effects on soldiers and their families due to war. I loved the theme of 'the curse' on the house and how that actually played out. (don't want to give anything away here.) I loved how the story came together bit by bit from several sources (gossip, re-telling, actual happenings). For the 1st 3/4 of the book, I had no problem keeping up with the time period and which characters I was reading about, but during the last 1/4, I began to have a difficult time keeping the different years and characters separate. I began to get Harry and JJ mixed up, but that problem went away as the time periods converged onto 'present day' 1950. But overall I really liked bouncing around the different time periods and the different 1st person narratives.
    The 'secret' twist was easy to figure out. (and not original, but a basis of many novels, and many true-life events too I'm sure.)
    I listened to it on audio and sometimes the different character's voices weren't very different. but it was ok.
    I found myself unable to take off my headphones - I just couldn't put this book down.
    I would compare this book to 'Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons' by Lorna Landvik, and 'And Ladies of the Club' by Helen Hooven Santmeyer (some of my all-time favorites). and almost as good as 'South of Broad' by Pat Conroy.
    It was a very nice snapshot of the times from a woman's viewpoint (mostly). I highly recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2011

    Great book!!!!

    This is in my top ten favorite books! I couldn't put it down!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2010

    Really good read

    This is one of the greatest books I have ever read! OK, let me be very up front about this. Yes, I am very prejudiced, you see Ellen is my daughter-in-law. And while I get great pleasure out of teasing Ellen that "Keeping the House" is a chick-book and an obligatory read for me, it really is a great book. While I have always much preferred historical books on war, especially the Civil War, and would love to know more about Byron's time in the Army, this book still held my interest all the way through it and left me with a big "Way to go!" with the ending. The characters are diverse and the details vivid enough to create very good pictures in my mind about both setting and emotions. I recommend this book to anyone, it really is a good read.

    Jim Baker

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2010

    I wanted to like this book more than I did!

    I thought Keeping the House was such an interesting idea for a novel, but I was a little disappointed by the book. I just never really developed a liking for the characters. I liked the non-chronological order of the chapters and the historical background of the book.

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  • Posted November 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Keeping The House

    I enjoyed this book. I thought the characters were well developed and the author did a great job of telling each of their stories.
    I loved the idea of falling in love with an old house and wondering about the lifes of the occupants. Only thing I thought would make it a bit better is if the author tossed in some ghosts. :)
    P.S. I figured out the twist early on also.

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  • Posted March 25, 2009

    OK, Not Wonderful

    I actually picked up this book at our local Barnes & Noble this past Saturday while there purchasing a birthday gift for my daughter's friend. It looked interesting, and the author is local.

    Tonight (Tuesday) I finished the book. Overall, I think that a great deal more research could have been done. First of all, the names. "Chase" for someone born at the turn of the last century? "Stacy" for someone born in roughly the same era, with sisters named Mary and Alice? Mildred or Genevieve would have been far more appropriate for that era. "Elissa" for someone born in the 1920's? Geez Louise, go the Social Security website to see what the most common given names were for babies in any given decade. I will admit that I'm quite the stickler for historical accuracy, and have hooted with laughter upon seeing zippers up the backs of the dresses worn by actresses in Tudor costume dramas.

    The plot is OK, although I managed to figure out the "twist" quite a few pages before it was revealed. At times the writing is very inspired, but at other times it's very stilted and wooden. Seems as though the author's research was very thorough on some points, but on others she just banged out a few pages here and there to try to bring the whole story together.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Read This Book!!

    I am so happy that I bought this book. What a wonderful storyline, beautifully drawn characters, and all around FABULOUS book! I cannot wait to see what Ms. Baker writes next. I highly recommend this book...you will not be able to put it down!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2008

    The BEST Book Ever!!!!!

    I was talking with my mother and she mentioned she had ordered Keeping The House. She then started reading what the book was about. I immediately flew to the library and checked it out. I could not put it down! I have a husband and five children and would fly through my day to get time to sit and read. I finished it amazingly in two days! I NEVER read a book that fast. Usually I am falling asleep in the evening, when I usually read. But not with this book. I also am going to purchase the book to have in my library. I loved it! I cannot wait for her next book. She is truly gifted in writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2008

    Strongly recommended

    This book was fantastic!! Though the book was 500 + pages, I read it in only 2 days. How the author was able to seamlessly interweave various stories, spanning generations, was amazing. The story goes back and forth between characters and generations but I had no difficulty follwing these changes. I would VERY HIGHLY recommend this book to readers of all types. I am most impressed by the author's writing ability and the story and characters were unforgettable. I read all books by borrowing from the library but am strongly considering buying this for my own personal collection. Read and enjoy!! You won't be disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2008

    Love is blind

    This was the best love story I have ever read. She was in love with the house and thought she was in love with everything (and everyone)about it. What a great story. Only bad thing was that it was her first and you cant buy anymore of her books. I am eagerly awaiting more from her.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2007

    A great read!

    Keeping the House kept me very interested from cover to cover. The different time periods were fairly easy to differentiate, and I thought the ending was well done. I am waiting for Ms. Baker's next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2007

    keeping the house

    travel into the past with this very enjoyable novel. follow the lives of dolly magnuson and the mickelson family and you will feel like more than an observer. ellen baker weaves her tale connecting the past with dolly's present and you can imagine yourself there beside her in her journey. a grand addition to my library!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2007

    A reviewer

    Ellen Baker has written a timeless treasure! I was fortunate enough to get an autographed copy of this mesmerizing saga involving tales of life, love, and war wrenching heartbreak. You will love this book not only for its multi faceted details of life, but also for its ability to pull from within you emotions for each character therein. Enjoy! Beautifully written! ReBecca

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2007

    Keeping the House - Ellen Baker

    The best part of this novel is that it helped me understand my grandmother and the reasons she does what she does in a way that I have never understood before, but always wanted to. Ellen truly captured the heart and soul of the time. For someone not from that era, it was the best way to help me understand it and embrace it. The novel kept me intrigued, but also challenged my own views unlike any book I have ever read! It gave me an appreciation for the 1950's housewife that I have never had before, only because of how far our society has come from stepping away from that image. It made me incredibly thankful that I am able to have my own opinions and be my own person in our world. But yet, with a loved one over seas right now, it was incredibly applicable to my life and current situation. I would HIGHLY reccommend this reading to all audiences. Because of its depth and reality, everyone will find a connection to this novel in some way.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2007

    great

    A great new author to watch. Loved the way she goes back and forth with past and present. Very entertaining read.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 32 Customer Reviews

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