Book Notes: Some Thoughts on The Irresistable Henry House

I know I’ve been gone a terrible long time, and I cannot even tell you exactly why as I don’t know myself.  Snow in Seattle (which didn’t shut down my computer).   Kids out of school (a larger impact).    Thanksgiving.  End of semester frenzy.   A couple of good books to read.   All of the above.

Anyway, I am going to get back on track, starting now.  I just finished The Irresistable Henry House by Lisa Grunwald.   It’s an interesting book–a fairly quick and easy read, that gave me some interesting things to think about.    The main character is Henry House.  He begins life as a practice baby, and that’s really the linchpin for the entire plot.  

It seems that for a fairly long time in the middle/latter part of the last century, a number of schools taught women home economics (also called domestic science) by having a practice house, where young women students would learn to clean and cook.   (And also, according to the novel, to dismantle and reassemble refrigerators.)  

In that spirit, in order to teach young women to be mothers, there were practice babies.   These were infants from local orphanages who were raised by a succession of women in the practice house.   At Cornell, whose website I linked to above, the babies last name was “Domecon”–short for Domestic Economics.  In the novel, the surname is “House.”      In time, the practice baby would be placed for adoption and a new baby would be obtained to start the process anew.    I confess that this sounds astonishing to me, yet the practice continued for a long time at a number of institutions. 

As I said, Henry House is a practice baby.   He is raised in a house with a rotating group of practice mothers–each “on-duty” for one week at a time.   (Spoiler Alert:   Do not go further if you don’t want to know more about the plot.)   One of them happens to be the woman who gave birth to him–a young woman married to a man off in the Army, having become pregnant after a one-night stand with a stranger.   Eventually, the older woman who runs the program (and the house) decides to keep Henry as her own child.   And thus he spends all his childhood in the practice house, until he heads off for boarding school.

Because of the rotating cast of mothers, Henry really never has a parent/child relationship with anyone.   No one is around long enough or consistently enough, no one is hands’ on enough.   To me, the main theme of the novel is how this shapes–and in some sense almost dooms–Henry.  He learns how to capture attention and how to please all these people, but he doesn’t learn to care, to trust or to commit.  

If you’ve been reading my blog you can perhaps guess why this would interest me.   For all his mothers, Henry is in some essential way a motherless child.   He has, in the genetic sense, a mother.   He even knows who she is.  But their relationship is painful and largely empty of meaning.  He has a whole set of practice mothers, but they don’t connect with him on the level where (to me, at least) a parent/child connection becomes real.   So though Henry is undeniably cared for and attended to, he’s missing something crucial.  

It’s only a work of fiction.  The author makes no pretense to have authoritative information about parents and children and how they shape each others lives.  But still, it made me think.    It’s an exercise in defintion by exclusion–none of the women in Henry’s life fill the role of mother as I think of it.   Seeing all the things that it is not sometimes helps you consider what it is.  

(If you are wondering, the father/child relationship is barely raised here.  I think it is fair to say that it isn’t what the book is really about.)

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