August 2012

Colleen Mondor


House by Tracy Kidder, Walking Home by Lynn Schooler, and Cabin by Lou Ureneck

The New York Times recently ran an essay by journalist Louis Uchitelle bemoaning the loss of American craftsmanship. Comparing our inability to fix things on our own to our diminished manufacturing base (and saying a lot of things about the presidential race), he walked through his local Home Depot and came to a few conclusions about how we work on our houses:

The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship -- simplify it, dumb down, hire a contractor -- is one signal that mastering tools and working with one's hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.

Leaving aside the continued popularity of the DIY Network and the fact that maybe hiring a professional to help with things you don't know how to do is a good idea (how many of us have watched Renovation Realities and yelled, "Hire someone before you destroy your house, you idiot!"), there is a small thriving subgenre of nonfiction that actually shares the stories of people who work on their own homes. Dating back to Thoreau (who took careful note of the all the materials purchased for his cabin), this type of story is often about pursuing a sense of accomplishment and, to some degree, what it means to be a man. That they rarely stray into Iron John territory is a testament to the authors' determination to focus on the task at hand, something that serves them well on the construction site and the page.

Tracy Kidder's House is the quintessential home building title and tells the story of one couple's efforts to hire an architect and contractors to construct their dream home. Kidder follows the process from design to completion, focusing on the different perspectives of those involved. The builders, who do much of the physical construction and carry the heavy weight of responsibility, find themselves often struggling between the reality of the work versus the architect's vision and the owners' finances. Their frustration is palpable on the page. They want the house to be a thing of beauty as it is their signature, an example of their craftsmanship, and thus much more personal to them in some ways than anyone else, even those who own and ultimately live in it.

This emotional investment in homebuilding is even more present in two recent books: Walking Home by Lynn Schooler and Cabin by Louis Ureneck. For these authors the construction process is a way to create something of permanence after family upheaval. The emotional catharsis, while palpable, remains only an element of the overall narrative, which, in both cases, still rests on foundation, walls, and roof, just as in House. Schooler began building his house outside Juneau, Alaska, as an intended home for him and his new wife. But as he writes in Walking Home, the relationship deteriorated, and ultimately the structure became something more than he ever intended. His dedication to it remained unwavering in the face of divorce, however, as the house had always meant more than wood and nails.

Ureneck also makes clear in Cabin that his emotional investment was significant, though his project took place post-divorce and as an attempt to forge a new relationship with his brother. As he painstakingly details the successes and setbacks they experience while building the small retreat in the woods he'd long dreamed of, he reveals the rekindling of a friendship with his adult nephews and his fractured family history. For Ureneck, the project carries an immense significance that Schooler could easily understand. The cabin is how Ureneck can spend time with his brother and extended family, and each step in the project is heavy with memories and filled with unspoken significance. In this way Cabin mimics the fictional example of Kevin Costner and Ben Affleck, two brothers-in-law who find common ground while rebuilding a house in the film The Company Men. As the title suggests, that movie is largely about respect for the work men do, and the emotional attachments they form both with each other and the work itself while doing it.

This is something Schooler understands quite well. Ultimately, in Walking Home, he not only builds a spectacular house but also delves into the region's history and embarks on a reflective journey into the woods that includes a harrowing wildlife encounter. For Ureneck, the revelations come much closer to home and involve confrontations only with his past self. Both men however rely heavily upon the act of building to guide them as their lives change, proving that the conclusions in the New York Times piece about the state of American craftsmanship ignore the personal nature of building a home. Sometimes, as House, Walking Home, and Cabin eloquently express, it is not about manufacturing trends or what Home Depot does or does not do at all. Building a home is about hammer and nails and the heart you put into the process.  

House by Tracy Kidder
Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0618001910
352 pages

Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart by Lynn Schooler
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 978-1608194643
272 pages

Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck
ISBN: 978-0670022946
256 pages