I have never, ever been someone who wanted to tackle home construction. I don't have the vision to see how this room or that might look differently with a wall torn down. I also really, really dislike the dust and mess of remodeling, the noise of construction, the various headaches of planning and purchasing and completion. Once when I was in my early teens, my family embarked on a home remodeling and expansion project. It took place at the other end of our house from my bedroom. I doubt I was inconvenienced in any way. Yet it had an impact on me, though I remember very little of the process. For the family in Building Our House, it has a very different impact.
The very first page shows the little family (mom, dad and two children) crammed into the front seat of an old pickup truck. On the title page, they are shown packing everything they own into that truck. As they turn in to their new lot, the truck is crammed high with those belongings, covered with an old tarp. The narrator says "Today is moving day. We left our old house in the city and are moving to the country." As the pages move on, it turns out that the family is building their own house (which you might have suspected from the title!), on a lot where a house has never been before. They believe have everything they need to get started - tools, plans, and that truck. The narrator (who is now revealed as the perhaps four year old daughter) tells us the truck's name is Willys.
As the family gets started, some help arrives. The little girl describes when the trailer where they'll live arrive. Then a truck arrives with a drill to drill for water, and later the electric company comes to raise wires. After water and gas are installed to help make the little trailer ready for them, the family launches into purchasing and gathering supplies. She states that her dad works at a job in town during the week, so they do all the work on the weekends.
Her Grandpa comes to dig the foundation with a backhoe, once her dad has staked out the property. The hard labor begins in earnest now, framing, pouring concrete, shaping lumber. As the winter approaches (the second winter of this project already!) they work harder than ever to complete the house. There are fundamental pieces that must be in place before the snow - chimney, roof, siding and windows. But, as often happens, the winter winds and storms arrive early.
The little family is finally in the house as the snow grows thick upon the ground, but there is still much to do, including the all-important plumbing, electricity, insulation and other crucial, slow steps. Finally, the home is ready and there is a moving party to welcome the family home. The little girl (who has grown a lot older over the 18-ish months took place), notes "Once the moving is done everyone goes back to their homes, but my family stays right where we are. It's our very first night in our new home." This is a satisfying ending to all the work, and in fact even to the readers it feels like an enormous accomplishment.
There have been other big events that take place over the course of the book, if you are careful to examine the illustrations. When the family first arrives at the field where they'll build, a stray cat is stalking through the weeds. As the time continues, you can see that same cat first being fed outside, frolicking with the children, and once they've all moved inside the new house, giving birth to kittens that also become part of the family. And there is a new addition to the human family during the house building too. Once the family begins living inside, the mother's stomach is unmistakably ungainly with a new baby. As they move in, officially, you can spot the new baby nestled in her arms.
I've referred to the detail in the illustrations but they are really such a great match to Bean's story. Even though I've highlighted some of the changes, there are many other items to pore over as the year goes by. The father often looks haggard and frazzled, as a father working full-time while building a house might. The mother is clearly more architecturally-inclined - she studies the plans and does all the measuring. She also does her fair share of the construction work too. It is fun to see a gopher pop up in the field from time to time, clearly not deterred by the cat.
There is poetry in the writing, as well. One of my favorite scenes is this one: "On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star. One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day." That is beautiful writing - I can feel the winter night, the care that went into choosing each corner of the foundation. This is just the beginning of the process, but it needs to be right.
There are many things I love about this family and this story. I cannot imagine the vision this took, the persistence throughout the long winters, the strength and energy to keep working when it got hard or overwhelming. I love that this is truly a family project - on every page, everyone is working, even the children. Sure, they have fun, hiding under wheelbarrows or splashing in wading pools, but the children also help measure, tote lumber and help lay insulation. They are involved, and it's a family accomplishment. And when the work cannot be finished by their little unit, their extended family comes. Aunts and uncles help with the frame-raising and I've already mentioned Grandpa coming with the backhoe.
One of the best parts about this story is the author's note. Bean explains that this book was inspired by his own parents building their house. He includes photos from that time in his life, and it's so enchanting to see these photos echoed on the previous spreads. I think this sentence summarizes both families very nicely: "My parents thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to housebuilding a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence." This was truly a leap of faith, but it paid off in some amazing ways.
Building Our House. Jonathan Bean. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.