Acute concerns about the environment, energy and the economy. Appallingly high heating and gas bills. A Democratic presidential candidate claiming the mantle of "change" in a close race against a Republican pushing fundamental American virtues.
2008? Sure, and 1976 too. We've come a short way, baby.
In his third novel, "When the White House Was Ours," Porter Shreve melds the bicentennial backdrop with fun period detail and tender portraits, delivering a loving bildungsroman of the hippie-twilight era. His savvy and gentle protagonist is 13-year-old Daniel Truitt, who moves from Illinois to Washington, D.C., with his parents, Pete and Val, and his little sister, Molly.
Pete's a former farm-league baseball player who, after a career-ending concussion, went into education. After a series of run-ins with school administrators, bouncing from job to job, he decides to open his own experimental ultra-democratic school in Washington. They call it Our House, after the Crosby, Stills & Nash song. Our House, as it happens, is a very, very beat up old mansion in a marginal neighborhood that Pete Truitt rents for cheap from a stodgy, belligerently Republican, somewhat bitter old teammate, Bailey. Bailey rubs Val the wrong way, as does the whole half-baked school project, which she suspects, not without reason, that her husband has conned her into. Their marriage is—to say the least—tense. "My mother had told my father, 'This was your idea,' his one last chance, and if the school tanked, their marriage would follow."
"Act first. Ask permission later," is the school's motto, writ large on a banner in the living room cum classroom. But what might sound radically invigorating from an education-theory standpoint is, in the hands of some children and adults alike, a recipe for chaos. In the summer before it is to open, Our House has no students or faculty beyond Pete and Val. A sympathetic nun at a nearby private school adds to the slender roster of pupils, who include a sexually precocious girl named Brie and a mysterious African-American boy named Quinn. Val's demoralized, sluggish brother Linc, whose pursuits consist of plucking "Blackbird" on the guitar and reading "The Man Without Qualities," comes east in a stolen car with his flower-child wife Cinammon and her menacing pseudo-Maoist lover Tino. Having fled from their failed Washington state commune, the pot-growing, shoplifting yippie trio install themselves as "faculty," fudging their credentials, with cash-strapped Pete as reluctant but desperate accomplice.
"The students would take a broad, open curriculum in the humanities and arts, the classes would be run not by 'teachers' but by 'tutor-collaborators.' "
Class, can you spell "trouble"?
As the group pursues loosey-goosey thematic lessons in graffiti art, Tutankhamen, zeppelins, gardening, photography and guitar, things unravel in a nerve-racking way that would seem over the top were the story not set in the '70s. When the craziness is too much for Daniel, he retreats into his obsessive biographical study of the U.S. presidents, mixed with research, to help out family finances, from "Steal This Book." A worldview patched together from the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt and Abbie Hoffman isn't easy to hold together, and is rocked further when Daniel becomes infatuated with Bailey's savvy, hoops-playing daughter Cleo.
Shreve, who directs the creative writing program at Purdue, based the story on his own family's similar experimental-school adventure in Philadelphia when he was a kid, and his adolescent narrator's outlook rings wonderfully, often distressingly, true.
When Cleo and her dad pay a surprise visit, Daniel nervously launches into a discussion of Jefferson's rivalry with Adams. He orders Molly to get Cleo a snack and, while yammering on about the founding fathers, Cleo "crossed her arms under her breasts, small plums snug in her tank top. I worried that she'd think I was rude to my sister, or worse, a know-it-all, droning on about dead men in wigs and knee breeches. Still I couldn't leave the story unfinished. 'On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing, John Adams died; his last words were 'Jefferson still lives.' I paused a moment to let this sink in."
Shreve's prose is brisk and straightforward, but irregularly embedded with jewels of quirky offbeat imagery. A chain basketball net at a neighborhood court "would seem to hold the ball for a moment, then let it go … as if I was playing catch with a tall, silent friend." When Tino comes naked into the den, "his private business looked like a Groucho Marx mask flipped upside down."
The hippies, to Shreve's great credit, are people, not types, and at once threatening and alluring in themselves and in their choices: "Cinnamon took Tino's hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. The freckles along her clavicle looked like grains of brown sugar falling into a cup. 'Let's go upstairs,' she said."
But what Daniel learns most at Our House is his own heart. In a battered old van, the students visit Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's graves in Rockville, Md. "Etched in the slab were the last lines from Gatsby: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' This could describe the life I've chosen," Daniel tells us, "every day a backward look over time, which in its lengthening makes sense of experience. A part of my teenage self was already honoring the past as I laid a quarter on the headstone."
In this fine, unpretentious tale, we watch a historian in the making, discovering that personal and national ideals of responsibility and freedom inform each other in strange and occasionally instructive ways.
When the White House Was Ours By Porter ShreveMariner, 280 pages, $12.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun