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  • Written by Ellen Baker
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  • Written by Ellen Baker
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Keeping the House

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A Novel

Written by Ellen BakerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ellen Baker

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: July 10, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-629-0
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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.

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.
Ellen Baker|Author Q&A

About Ellen Baker

Ellen Baker - Keeping the House
Ellen Baker is author of Keeping the House, which won the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award. She has worked as a bookseller and event coordinator at an independent bookstore. She lives in Minnesota.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Ellen Baker

Random House Reader’s Circle: How long did it take you to write Keep­ing the House? What kind of research did you do for it, and did it take you anywhere unexpected?

Ellen Baker: I started writing about the Mickelson family in 1996, and worked off and on for about seven years on a manuscript that dealt with their summer of 1919 in Stone Harbor, after Jack had just returned from the First World War. I finally decided that I needed to start something new, and began what would become Keeping the House in early 2003. I worked on it solidly for three years. I had researched World War I exten­sively when I was in grad school in 1998—2000, and World War II when I was working as a museum curator after that. But that really just gave me the overarching background for the story. As I wrote, I would dis­cover details I needed and then seek them out. I traveled to North Cen­tral Wisconsin and La Crosse, and spent many hours in various libraries and archives, reading newspapers and magazines and city directories. I walked through the old Washington Avenue depot in Minneapolis, through a stand of virgin pine near Antigo, Wisconsin, and through the preserved World War II—era barracks at Fort McCoy. I interviewed sev­eral World War II veterans and even one woman who had met her hus­band at a dance in La Crosse. I pored over old cookbooks to plan Dolly’s meals, and the War Department’s 1917 advice on war gardens to plan Wilma’s garden. I researched girdles and corsets, Packards and Chrys­lers. I can’t say that any of this was really expected–I just let the story tell me where to go. I’m always fascinated by what I find, and I enjoy the challenge of weaving the details into the story.

RHRC: Speaking of research and history, readers love the excerpts that you weave throughout the book from vintage magazines, such as old is­sues of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Which piece of advice surprised or intrigued you the most? Do you find any of the tips useful or relevant to today’s modern woman?

EB: My favorite piece of advice is from the 1940 book Popular Home Decoration: “A house, exactly like a dog, must be loved before it will show the best side of its nature.” I was so happy to find that because it seemed to go right in line with what Dolly was thinking about the Mick­elson house and the bungalow. And I thought that a few of the lines from the 1939 Good Housekeeping Marriage Book could still be relevant today, such as the advice to really try to understand one’s mate, and the idea that “all kinds of wonderful qualities needed in marriage may seem to be conspicuous in oneself chiefly by their absence, but one can always play for time.” I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been disappointed by their own performance in a relationship from time to time, and I like that idea of waiting out one’s own bad behavior without letting the commit­ment waver. Some of the advice obviously seems quaint–like the lines from the cookbooks–and some of it strikes me as purely awful, partic­ularly the stuff from the 1949 Look magazine article titled “The Other Woman Is Often the Creation of the Wife,” and the lines from the “Mak­ing Marriage Work” column. But all of the excerpts work to set up the context that Dolly is living in, the messages she’s getting from society, and why she feels bad about not living up to these expectations. In my mind, the best thing the modern woman can take from all these tips is to be conscious of the way the messages and advice one gets from today’s media might be influencing one’s perceptions of oneself. I know I for one can’t live up to what many current women’s magazines seem to expect of women.

RHRC: You’ve created a fascinating cast of characters in Keeping the House, all with such distinct personalities. Do you have a favorite? And if so, why?

EB: I love all the characters in Keeping the House, but if I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be Harry. He’s smart, humble, a bit wounded in his own quiet way. He’s more selfless than any of the other characters, more altruistic, and more honest. And he tries to do his best for his mother, despite the fact that she never really notices him. The others are fun to eavesdrop on or visit, but he’s the only one I would ever want to live with.

RHRC: The conflict that Dolly feels between society’s traditional wifely expectations and her own interests and passions is something that many women still struggle with today. Do you think things have really changed? Or that they need to? And did writing about Dolly’s situation help you resolve any conflict in your own married life?

EB: I think this is such a complicated issue; maybe that’s why I found it so fascinating to write about Dolly and Wilma and all the men and women in Keeping the House who are dealing with such questions in their own lives. On the one hand, there is such value in the work of keep­ing the house: parenting, cooking, providing a safe environment in which children can thrive, building communities. There’s something about a well-kept, comfortable home that seems to suggest order and safety in a chaotic world, and those of us who are fortunate enough to have this are truly blessed. On the other hand, I think there is danger when this work of housekeeping is gendered–considered “feminine” and thus devalued. It seems to me that, for many women today, these important housekeep­ing tasks are piled on top of the need and desire to excel in a career, while men are more typically able to prioritize their career above the work of home and family without much angst over the issue. Maybe because women still hear so many constant messages about how that it’s their job to take care of nutritious meals, clean and organize the house, nurture the kids. The real task, I think, is for communities and families to equal­ize the value of work both inside and outside the home and to realize that the task of keeping the house must be shared by men and women if we are to have true equality between the sexes, not to mention thrive as a so­ciety.
For me, I was appalled when I got married and people asked me why I wasn’t packing my husband’s lunch for him or why he occasionally had to wash the dishes or cook a meal. Even more strangely, I found myself taking on the responsibility of making sure he ate “colorful, well-balanced meals” (though I never went to the extremes that Dolly did with recording menus and responses). And I was working fifty hours a week. I was curious–and frustrated–to discover that I was wired to be a tradi­tional wife, and that my husband seemed just as wired to be a traditional husband, despite that, if you asked us, both of us would say that our ideal was to be equal. I don’t think that issues in relationships are ever resolved, but they are always in the process of evolving, and with time hopefully comes the ability to interrogate and restructure one’s own unconscious expectations.

RHRC: Keeping the House is dedicated to your grandmothers. Did you use any of their own stories or experiences in writing this book?

EB: No, not directly. But they’ve both shaped my life and my thinking in significant ways.

I grew up hearing their stories. One, born in 1905, saw her farmer fa­ther killed by lightning when she was seven years old (and watched as his body was brought in from the field where he’d been working). She mar­ried young, had a child, divorced her first husband (he was never spoken of), and was a single mom for several years, working to support her daughter. She then married my grandpa, had two babies that died during the Depression (she later said she thought if she’d just been able not to work so hard doing washing, they might have survived), and finally had my dad. She was an amazing cook and housekeeper and needlewoman who also worked outside the home to earn money to send her kids to school so they could have a better life than she had (she had only an eighth-grade education), a tough and often bitter woman who embodied many contradictions. She was widowed in 1964, lived until the age of 100, and often, at the end, talked about the happiest days of her life: when she was a child on the farm and her father was still alive. Talk about loss changing and shaping the course of a life.

My other grandma was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants. She earned a Master’s Degree from Radcliffe College in 1935 and was married a couple of months later. My grandpar­ents then moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my grandfather soon became the president of a small college. Over the next thirty years or so, my grandma raised five daughters and worked in support of her hus­band’s career, editing and typing his book manuscripts and hosting din­ner parties for his colleagues, though she hated to cook and loved to teach and write. Hearing the stories of their lives was firsthand evidence that women typically had to choose between family and career, while men were easily able to have both. So I think these stories steered me in the direction of being interested in ideas about gender, in what society typically expects from women and from men, and started me down the path of studying history through the lens of gender.

RHRC: This is your first book; tell us a bit about your writing process and the journey to publication. Did you always want to be a writer?

EB: Yes, I did always want to be a writer. I guess I’d say I’ve been one my whole life. Since about the age of seven, I wrote something every day: journal entries, poetry, stories–I started my first novel when I was thir­teen. It was just something I did–I always had a pen in my hand to record some secret thought. (I wrote a Jane Eyre-esque romance in my ninth-grade algebra notebook, for example, when I should have been paying attention to the teacher at the blackboard and her equations.) For many years I really didn’t consider writing as a viable career option–it was far too personal a part of me to share with the world. But over time I discovered that there was nothing that fulfilled me the way that writing did. And once I decided not to be afraid of what the results might be, and put my whole self into not just writing for the sake of writing but writ­ing something that other people might actually want to read, I began really studying the craft for the first time, reading more than ever, and writing and rewriting. Three years later I had a wonderful agent in New York and a book deal with Random House. Those were probably the hardest three years of work of my life, and they were absolutely the best and most rewarding, too.

RHRC: What other books would you recommend for those who enjoyed Keeping the House? What are some of your favorite novels?

EB: Some fantastic novels which I would recommend to people who en­joyed Keeping the House are The Cape Ann by Faith Sullivan, The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates, When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafŽ by Fannie Flagg, Cane River by Lalita Tademy, The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Some of my other favorites include Absalom, Absalom! and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Goodbye to Some by Gordon Forbes, The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kim­mel, First Light by Charles Baxter, The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

RHRC: What’s next for you? Can we expect a book that’s similar to Keeping the House, or something completely different?

EB: There are definitely certain themes that I’ll come back to, just be­cause they fascinate me: war, memory, identity, history, love, family se­crets. But the setting and characters will be different. None of the women in my next book are housewives; they’re farmers, artists, and World War II shipbuilders. So they’re dealing with problems that are quite different from Dolly’s and Wilma’s in Keeping the House.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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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