Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Review: How to Build a House

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt. (Grades 9+)

Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Harper is convinced that these "natural" disasters are getting worse and worse as global warming increases. And she's determined to do something about it. So she recycles. She stops drinking pop. She refuses to use foam cups. And she gets on a plane and heads out to Bailey, TN (population of about 1000) to build a house.

The house is for the Wrights, a family of five who have been working nonstop to clean up their neighbor's houses and the town. Now this group of teen volunteers is building a house for them. Harper's glad that she can help out. But she's also relieved to get out of LA for the summer. She had a family there. But even though there was no natural disaster in California, her home's crumbled beneath her. She had to get away.

Can a summer spent in the muggy heat of the Tennessee backwoods be enough to teach Harper how to rebuild what's been lost?

I loved this book. I was drawn to Harper from the first page. She cares deeply about things and truly wants to make a difference. And then as the book proceeds you find out that she has some secrets. Things happened back home that made her want to get away. Somehow her life unraveled. As Harper narrates the summer in present-tense, she flips back and forth between explaining what happened with her family in California. She gives you just enough information to pull the reader forward through the story and keep you intrigued.

It's a quiet book. The big, dramatic events have happened offstage - the tornado and the divorce. Harper's dealing with the aftermath of both. Far away from her home, she makes new friends and discovers a true connection with a boy. Slowly, she begins to put everything back together.

I loved the writing. It's poetic and has a snarky edge that I dig. Like when she meets the director for the volunteer program:

Linus Devereaux. The paragraph said he'd built homes in Alaska, Mississippi, the Florida Gulf Coast, South Dakota, Watts, Haiti, the Congo, and the Ukraine. It didn't say anything else about him, but it did end with this quote from Gandhi that all the posers at school like to put on their senior yearbook pages: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Then again, those posers go off to UCLA or USC or sometimes Yale, and they drink too much and throw up out their dorm windows, and this guy is off building houses in every corner of the globe, so I guess maybe he's actually earned the right to put Gandhi's quote beneath a picture of himself with an uncomfortable smile
. (pp 10-11.)

I've been wanting to pick this up for awhile now since I read Reinhardt's A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life a couple years ago and loved it. I'm so glad I finally did pick it up because I think HTBAH is one of my favorite books of the year.

More reviews at, LA Times, A Patchwork of Books, and