Rokeby Article, Tracy Kidder’s House

Tracy Kidder depicts the joys and challenges of home construction in House.

I spoke this morning via Skype with dear friend Dan Middleton.

In addition to being one of my favorite people on the planet, “Dano” is a former resident of Rokeby, an enormous and multi-room mansion that was the subject of a largely critical article this past week in The New York Times.  Among other charges, the piece asserts that the home’s owning family, the Aldriches, of whom one relative is Dan’s stepfather, has insufficient funds to maintain the place.  The three-page story goes on to paint a vivid picture of a largely ramshackle home that has seen far better days and that is more a bridge to an opulent past than to a vital present.

Dan’s stepfather has written a letter to the Times asking for a series of corrections, if not an editorial note, to address what he sees as factual and copy editing inaccuracies.

Although it is unclear whether Aldrich’s letter will be published, it is far more clear that homeownership is far from an undifferentiated set of joyful experiences.

Dean of Western Massachusetts writers Tracy Kidder wrote House not about the maintenance of an old home like Rokeby, but about the design and creation of a new home.   As almost always with Kidder’s books, the result is a fascinating stew of characters, technical information and the celebration of ordinary moments.

Some of the book’s key figures include Jim Locke, the craftsman and contractor who navigates between the client’s shifting desires and finite budget and the architect’s lofty vision, and his crew’s desire to keep the project going and completed at the same time.   Kidder also effectively captures and depicts the home’s spiritual meaning for Jonathan and Judith Souweine, the owners, even as he does not back away from showing the husband’s less attractive side.

Indeed, the conflict and frustration Souweine feels with Locke and the architect are an integral part of the process, and of Kidder’s gift to us as readers.   A poignant moment comes at the book’s end, when the family is ecstatic to have finally moved into their new home.  The husband tries to convey his gratitude to Locke, who has poured his time, energy and creativity into the project, but now, having made less than he had hoped, must move on, gather up another crew and begin the process anew.

One of Kidder’s many talents is his ability to create characters whose motivations are comprehensible, even if their actions do not always garner our respect.  For that alone, House is worth reading.  For homeowners in the stage of maintaining a historic mansion like Rokeby, or building their own house, as our friends the Lucchettis did a couple of years ago, I would be careful about your timing.

Some of the material may hit too close to home, if you know what I mean.

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