By JULIA SCHEERES
Published: November 2, 2008
WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS
By Porter Shreve
280 pp. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company.Paper, $12.95
The 1970s may be the most ridiculed decade of the 20th century, and
with good reason. It featured numerous wince-worthy fads, including
pet rocks, string art, streaking and platform shoes. Although most of
these crazes now seem tragically quaint (key party, anyone?), the
'70s were also characterized by a touching receptiveness to new
ideas. This was, after all, a time when movements promoting equal
rights for women, diversity in schools and businesses, and protection
of the environment all began to hit their stride. Porter Shreve's
third novel, "When the White House Was Ours," focuses on yet another
'70s conceit: democratic education, wherein faculty and students
jointly run the classroom.
In 1976, after being fired from his umpteenth teaching job, Pete
Truitt announces that he's going to start his own school. So he
hitches a U-Haul to the family van and drives from Lake Bluff, Ill.,
to Washington, D.C., where a former college baseball teammate now a
successful real-estate entrepreneur has offered him a six-bedroom
Victorian, supposedly rent-free. Dragged along for the ride are
Pete's wife, his 10-year-old daughter and his 12-year-old son,
Daniel, who narrates the book.
Although the Truitts arrive in a capital abuzz with bicentennial
fever, their new digs are hardly cause for excitement. The place may
be the grandest house on the block, but it's also bug-infested and
filthy. And, contrary to what Pete has told his family, it's neither
furnished nor free. Cue one more marital spat.
Valerie Truitt is fed up with her husband's peripatetic teaching
career and his "history of grand ideas followed by shaky execution."
If the experimental school fails, Daniel worries, so will his
parent's marriage: they have become careless about closing the door
during arguments, and his mother is taking longer and longer drives
down what her husband disparagingly calls "Livid Lane," "Bitter
Boulevard" and "Hoppin' Mad Highway." With angry resignation, she
responds to her husband's plans for "a free and open laboratory for
kids to explore their own interests" by agreeing to lead a literature
class. Emboldened by an evaporating bank account and armed with phony
credentials, she joins the other members of the family as they spread
out across the capital to recruit students.
Named Our House after the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, the
Truitts' academy is modeled on A. S. Neill's Summerhill free school
in Suffolk, England. Classes are not taught but guided by
"tutor-collaborators." By allowing kids the freedom to study whatever
they please, the theory goes, they will get "back in touch with their
natural 'goodness' " and "grow into more thoughtful members of
society." The school motto? "Act first. Ask permission later."
Predictably, chaos ensues.
Daniel is a nerdy boy whose hobby is writing mini-biographies of
American presidents, and his tic of constantly spouting presidential
trivia is both amusing and pointless. (The campaign slogan of our
unpopular 14th president, Franklin Pierce? "We Polked you in 1844, we
shall Pierce you in 1852.") Daniel's plodding, John Boy-like
voiceover undercuts the urgency of the novel's central dramas the
fate of the school and his family. Even when his father has him
thrown in jail for an adolescent caper, this bizarrely placid,
increasingly robotic narrator remains unruffled. More
problematically, Shreve introduces several subplots that simply fizzle away.
The arrival of three hippies Daniel's uncle and aunt, and his
aunt's lover (who also happens to be his uncle's best friend)
enlivens the plot somewhat. Employing tactics from Abbie Hoffman's
"Steal This Book," they join Daniel in contributing to the household
by raiding community gardens, scavenging used furniture from
wealthier neighborhoods on bulk trash day and rooting through the
Dumpsters behind Lord & Taylor. But once the school recruits enough
students to pay the bills, the narrative tension dissipates. Shreve
sporadically injects the perspective of the adult Daniel to
contextualize the action, and these passages are among the most
interesting in the book. Sadly, they're few and far between.
As in his two previous novels "The Obituary Writer" and "Drives
Like a Dream" Shreve uses "When the White House Was Ours" to
deconstruct family relationships, examining the way fathers inspire
both pride and resentment in their offspring.He writes in the
acknowledgments that this latest work was inspired by his own
family's attempts to run an alternative school, also called Our
House, and he manifests an entertaining knowledge of '70s particulars
like kangaroo socks and Marshmallow Fluff.
The atmosphere of the fictional Our House mirrors that of the Carter
presidency inaugurated with high hopes, only to slide inexorably
downward. The strange combination of hippy permissiveness and teenage
belligerence is the school's undoing. Ultimately, "democratic
education" proves to be bunk. "All that jive talkin'," as the Bee
Gees put it, "just gets in your eye."
Julia Scheeres, the author of a memoir, "Jesus Land," is at work on a
novel, and on a nonfiction book about the mass murder-suicides at Jonestown.