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.
Advance praise for Keeping the House
“Ellen Baker’s first novel is a wonder! Keeping the House is a great big juicy family saga, a romantic page-turner with genuine characters written with a perfect sense of history, time, and place. Her portrayal of the American housewife is hilarious and heartbreaking. I couldn’t have liked it more!”
–Fannie Flagg, author of Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven
“Ellen Baker’s first novel, Keeping the House, is a quilt that grids a small Midwestern town in the middle of the last century. Under this writer’s deft hands, each square is a story, a mystery, an indiscretion, a tale of the great house and grand family who once ruled there. Even more, it captures the roles of women then: both the living embodiments of demure ideals, and those who couldn’t fit the pattern. Edith Wharton’s novels of domestic despair and display come to mind with each page.”
–Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean
“A born storyteller, Ellen Baker has written an enthralling family saga filled with three generations of memorable characters and capturing the dreams and frustrations of twentieth-century women in wonderful, spot-on historical detail.”
–Faith Sullivan, author of Gardenias and The Cape Ann
“Ellen Baker has written the novel I’ve been waiting to read for a very long time. It’s the book you want to curl up with, the book you rush home to, the book you wish you’d written. In Keeping the House, she serves up the complexities of family relationships, the anguish of victims of wars, the innermost thoughts of women, and the social mores of the past. Seasoned with mysteries that kept me devouring pages, this is one huge gourmet feast of a book for readers to savor. I look forward to every delicious book this author writes.”
–Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows and Right as Rain
From the Hardcover edition.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
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.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Keeping the HouseEllen Baker For anyone that likes to follow several generations, this is a book for you. Reminiscent of And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, Ellen Baker has introduced us to three generations of the Mickelson family and drawn us into their trials and tribulations through the eyes of various members and generations of this family as told to newlywed Dolly Magnuson. Dolly, a newcomer to a small town, gets the full story second hand through local small town gossipers looking in on a misunderstood family. Dolly then gleans information from the house the family occupied for several generations, then finally via stories told by JJ Mickelson, the grandson of the family Matriarch, Wilma Mickelson. Through the story revealed to Dolly, Dolly manages to learn from the mistakes of the Mickelson family, which is more than can be said of some of the Mickelson family. Baker structures the book in such a way that the reader is not spending time trying to figure out who is narrating at the time. Baker manages to keep the reader from losing track of past and present by prefacing chapters with location and dates. Also included are short quotes detailing the thought process of the times, such as the discipline and self-sacrifice needed to make a marriage of the 50¿s successful. We see into the minds of several generations and their thoughts on marriage, but mostly through the eyes of the female family members. Although several generations separate Wilma from Dolly, many of the same dilemmas and concerns face both women as they begin their lives as married women. Ellen Baker left me curious to know not only how the Mickelson family faired, but also how the Magnuson family faired. Do Molly and Byron open lines of communication and salvage their marriage? Are they blessed by the birth of a much-wanted child? Is a child the missing piece that Dolly needs to fulfill her role as wife? Does JJ settle down and find a woman that can look beyond his handicap? What happens to Elissa and Nick? Can they survive the lies of their family that brought the downfall of a marriage? Are Harry and Anne the only family members to learn the importance of honesty within a relationship? Baker leaves us happy to have met these characters and craving to know more about them. Keeping the House is a fascinating and enthralling work and Ellen Baker is a new author that will definitely be added to my favorite authors list.
I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it. There were a lot of characters but you did feel like you got to know many of them. You saw their good sides and bad. The ladies of the Ladies Aid gave us what people thought of the Mickelson's and we were able to see inside their lives and know they were just regular people. There was some mystery in how the story would unravel and it was enjoyable to read.
Dolly, a new mid-century housewife, meets with some marriage disappointments in Pine Rapids, Wisconsin. She becomes captivated by the once-grand Mickelson house, confident that possessing it will solve her ever-growing series of problems and dissatisfactions. She collects bits of the history and mysteries of the family that once lived there, and uncovers some rather stunning revelations in the end. Generally, I tend not to be a fan of stories that flit back and forth between decades, but here it's been skillfully rendered, and I only took slight pause a couple of times to re-orient myself in time when returning to the book after a break. The device became irrelevant; after a few chapters I found myself almost as determined to reveal the secrets of the Mickelsons as Dolly was.I've seen references made to the style of Anne Tyler several times. True, Baker's characters are nearly as dimensional, timeless, and engaging, if not as purposefully quirky. And there are elements both bitter and sweet, but, where Tyler's work often leaves the reader with a strong aftertaste of the former, Baker's ending emphasizes the latter. Which, in the case of Dolly Magnuson and Wilma Mickelson, is just fine with me.
A multi-generational, multi-family saga that starts at the turn of the 19th Century, stops for a bit during WWI, continues through WWII, and ends up in the great American post-war prosperity of the 1950s. It should be noted that one of the themes running through this well-written novel is the horrible effects that wars have on families and how these effects continue through generations, poisoning relationships as well as people. Ms. Baker goes out of her way to make it clear how repressed the life of an average woman was during this period, not only through the voices of the female characters themselves, but by the device of having a quote from a marriage manual precede each chapter. At times the passivity of the female characters was annoying, in that you wanted to reach into the book and slap some of them. But what saved it was the love that Ms. Baker has for her characters, for better or worse. But one shouldn¿t read this as meaning the book is some kind of chick-lit; in fact the male characters all fully drawn as well as equally annoying (at times). All in all, a satisfying read, a sensitive novel, and one hopes to hear more from Ms. Baker in the future.Denton
Keeping the House, Ellen Baker's first novel, intricately weaves the stories of two families, the Mickelsons and the Magnusons, before allowing them to collide. The story takes place over a period of time from the late 19th century until 1950, spanning several generations. Baker has a knack for story-telling and her background in American Studies and as the curator of a World War II museum helps to add authenticity to the story. When Byron and Dolly Magnuson move to a small town in the mid-west, Dolly has trouble adapting. She admires a grand but dilapidated house on a hill and hears stories from the town gossips about the Michelson family who once inhabited it. She secretly enters the house to fix it up, hoping that her husband will buy it for her, thus solving all of their problems, only to be discovered by one of the family members who gives her a more accurate, if not entirely truthful version of his family's story. It is said that the house puts a curse on one's love life, and Dolly finds her marriage unraveling in a self-fulfilling prophecy as other relationships did before hers.Some of the characters in this novel are a little wooden, but this could be due in part to the expected submission of women of the time. The story becomes a little soap opera-esque at the end with everything wrapping up in a somewhat unrealistic manner; that said, this novel is a solid first effort by Ms. Baker.
The story focuses on a house, the Mickelson House, that is said to be cursed. Dolly, newly married and new to the town of Pine Rapids, falls in love with the house. She falls in love with the family that lived there. We see the family through the eyes of their neighbors when Dolly asks questions about them and we see the family for themselves as the books goes back in forth in time. The story is about women's lives from early 1900's to 1950's. It's about the sheer boredom of your life only being housework and dinner. It's about relationships, intimacy, war, and death. The author covers it all and does it well. I enjoyed the read.Why did I like the book? It was a pleasant read, easy to follow and believable. The characters even the ones you were supposed to maybe not like so much you like them too and felt for them as well.
This book was sent to me by the publisher as an early reviewer copy. I dove into the book and immediately got dragged into the stories of three women, in the same town but in different times, spanning the early 1900s into the 1950s. Baker touches on a few themes in the book including war, love, and the lives of women during these changing times. However, about 3/4 of the way through the book, I started to lose interest. First off, some characters come across as stock characters (think John Irving's issue with female characters in most of his books; Baker does this with her male characters). I find them unbelievable and static. Secondly, the hinting at something HUGE happening at Thanksgiving time, 1945, got old rather quickly. Yes, I know foreshadowing. I don't need to be told repeatedly. Normally, I like the jumping of time in a book. This time, I got tired of it quickly. The chapters are short, but sometimes you wonder why they're necessary. Easily, this book could have been half as long as twice as impactful.All that said, I think Ellen Baker will work these issues out in later novels. I look forward to seeing what else she has to write.
I lked this more than I expected. Reading it for book club I was interested in the observations Baker made regarding marriage. How people often don't really know the person they marry. Their notion of who this person is more a product of their dreams rather than reality. She uses the character Dolly and her facination with the Mansion on the hill to challenge the notion our materialistic values. The marital crimes and misdemeanors commited by the matriach and patriarch of the family pose important questions. Are actions or attitudes more important. or equally important?I would recommend it for a book club. Good for discusion.
As other reviewers have pointed out, this is a family saga that begins at the turn of the century and ends in the 1950's. The reader watches the effect of decisions made down through generations as ripples in the story. As is so often the case in fiction, characters make decisions that make the reader want to scream, "Don't do it!" Without those decisions, though, there is no story and there is no life.Ms. Baker's story is definitely one of what happens when the truth is hidden and lies are allowed to fester. Ever present is the "curse" that is said to hang over the beautiful house, but the curse is, if anything, the "roads not taken", the truth that isn't spoken, and people who hesitate to act because of fear of authority.Another reviewer has pointed out the frustrating aspect of women who are too passive. It's true--their lack of assertiveness is very frustrating, but until relatively recently, women were expected to be passive and faced truly tragic ends if they tried to resist the decisions of the men in their lives.I enjoyed the parts of the story set in WWII, and I enjoyed the few strong female characters in the story. Wilma's ultimate decisions reinforced the idea that it isn't too late "to become what you might have been".
Two families bound by one "cursed" house.Lonesome in a new town while her husband works selling cars, newlywed Dolly Magnuson follows the "rules" for married women in the popular press of the 1950's. She works hard to keep a pleasant home for her husband and takes on all the responsibility for making her marriage work. Despite her sincere efforts, she feels something is missing. Her growing interest in the beautiful abandoned Mickelson home across the street provides her with dreams for a better future. When JJ Mickelsen, an injured vet from WWII, comes back to his family's home, he fills in the gaps left by the town gossips in his family's story and Dolly's emotional involvement deepens. As JJ tells her the entire story about why his family abandoned their family home, Dolly becomes increasingly obsessed wtih the Mickelson family story. Can she avoid becoming yet another victim of this family's sad history?With endless drama and shocking family secrets, this is a satisfying read that will keep any Oprah fan turning the pages until the very end.
I almost feel guilty admitting how much I enjoyed this book. Besides being a sucker for a war book, it definitely has chick lit feel, as well as a touch of the Jerry Springer train-wreck- that-you-can't-stop-watching feel to it (complete with incestuous love affairs with family members you don't realize are family members). For a first book Ellen Baker has certainly written an engaging, mysterious, dysfunctional delight that literally had me glued to the last two hundred pages. There was just no way I was putting it down until I learned what happened to every last character. One of the most enjoyable features of the novel, in my opinion, were the blurbs and didactic advice taken from 1950's Ladies Home Journal magazines and other instructional journals of that era. While a few of the characters are a bit stereo typical and the plot has a few weak points, overall Ms. Baker has definitely hooked me as a reader. I will be watching for her next release.
I loved this book. It is about a family whose lives are so intertwined. It is almost like a soap opera, but everything is written in a very believable way. The chapters end so that it make you want to keep reading. Excellent read.
This is in my top ten favorite books! I couldn't put it down!