Sunday, June 13, 2010

Playing House


Who knew that 50 years ago college level Home Economic programs would use 'practice babies' as teaching tools? How strange is that? When I was 4 I was 'loaned' to my older sister's high school Home Ec class for a week. I would go to school with her, spend the day with the Home Ec classes and then go home. The vague memories I have of this are all good. I remember playing and being surrounded by teenagers interested in me. I'm sure I was in hog heaven with all that attention. So in a minor way I am a sort of veteran of the type of teaching programs that author Lisa Grunwald explores in The Irresistible Henry House. A wonderfully fun nature verses nurture tour of a baby boomer's life.

In 1946 orphan Henry is brought to the all girl Wilton College as a practice baby but instead of going back to the orphanage at the end of the semester, Henry is adopted by Martha Gaines the head of the college's Home Ec program. So begins Henry's childhood. At Wilton Henry gets a batch of doting new mothers every year. He is also the recipient of the changing attitudes of raising children. The last tenants of the Victorian nursery were blowing away and Dr Spock was replacing them but not for Martha Gaines. She tried to bring Henry up with science not cuddles. Martha's student mothers on the other hand were eager to please Henry. As a result Henry grows up seeing women as interchangeable. A series of people easily pleased and ready to be manipulated and cajoled before they inevitably move on.

Henry's life through the 50's and 60's hits on all the major cultural touch points. Grunwald's writing about the events we all know about and Henry's adventures with them is fresh and fun. No mean feat. Henry becomes an artist as an adult and on the surface manages to successfully play well with others. His issues of trust and abandonment torpedo any lasting relationships until he meets another former practice baby. Mother Martha's life with and after Henry is a more distant study of those times but equally well written and for me very moving.

I relished reading The Irresistible Henry House. The basis for the story is a grabber but there is much more to this book than that single idea. Lisa Grunwald entertained me and made me want to share Henry--just like all those make believe mothers at Wilton College.


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