Tracy Kidder takes readers to the heart of the American Dream: the building of a family's first house with all its day-to-day frustrations, crises, tensions, challenges, and triumphs.
|Edition description:||1ST MARINE|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.87(d)|
About the Author
Tracy Kidder is the author of Home Town, Among Schoolchildren, and Old Friends. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He lives in Massachusetts and Maine.
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Jim Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.
Locke's transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber. Then, bending over, putting one eye to the lens of the transit and squinting the other, he transforms his view of this patch of open ground into a narrow, well-lighted tunnel divided by cross hairs. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, in another context, "The art of civilization is the act of drawing lines." And of course it has also been the act of drawing level ones.
This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter. It commands pretty views. There's a deep-looking woods on one edge. On another, there's a pasture, which turns into the precipitous, forested, publicly owned hills known as the Holyoke Range. And to the north and east there's a panorama. Look north and you see a hillside orchard topped with two giant maples locally known as Castor and Pollux. Look a little east and your view extends out over a broad valley, all the way to the Pelham Hills, which have turned blue at this morning hour.
The air has some winter in it. On this morning in mid-April 1983 a New England spring snow is predicted. The sky looks prepared. It has a whitening look. Several weeks must pass before dandelions, but the urge to build has turned New England's April into May. While Locke prepares for the transformation of this ground, four others pace around, killing time. They have their collars turned up and their hands thrust deep into coat pockets. They wait with reddening noses. None of the onlookers needs to be here, but none would have willingly stayed away. Among them is a very tall man, named Bill Rawn. He is the architect. He has driven all the way from Boston to witness the birth of the first house he has ever designed, and he grins while he waits. There are Judith and Jonathan Souweine, the woman and the man of the house to be. (Their surname is French and is pronounced "Suh-wayne," or if one is in a hurry, "Swayne.") They have spent months planning for this moment, and they have imagined it for many more. Judith and Jonathan smile at each other. Judith takes a few snapshots while Jim Locke works with the transit.
Turning her camera on Locke, Judith sees a refined-looking young man. When she met him about two months ago, she thought, "Obviously, his upbringing was very upper middle class. Even if I hadn't known who his father was, I could have told. Everything about him was — well, you know. He's made a conscious decision not to be a white-collar professional." Locke is wearing jeans and work boots and an old brown jacket, a workingman's uniform. His clothes are clean and he is clean-shaven. He has straight brown hair, neatly trimmed and combed, and a long, narrow jaw. There is a delicacy in his features. You can imagine his mother in him. He has a thoughtful air. He studies his transit a moment, laying two fingers against his lips. Then as he bends again to the eyepiece, he wipes his hair off his forehead and for a moment he looks boyish and defiant.
The building site slopes gently. Locke calculates by how much it does so. He turns the scope of the transit until he sees the cross hairs rest upon a numeral inscribed on a long, numbered staff. Judith's father has volunteered to carry the staff. Locke directs him to and fro. For a benchmark, Locke has chosen an electrical box planted in the ground nearby. He sends his staff-bearer to that spot first. The numbers Locke reads through his scope tell him how far below his transit's scope the benchmark rests. He sends the staff-bearer to a stake that represents the southeastern corner of the house to come, and through the scope he determines how far below the benchmark that corner lies. Locke checks these numbers against ones inscribed on a blueprint opened on the ground beside him. Soon he knows the relative elevations of the land at each corner of the house. He will be able to tell through his spyglass when the cellar hole has been dug to the proper depth. The ceremony can begin, as soon as the bulldozer arrives.
When Locke has begun to wonder whether it is coming at all, it appears — a small, yellow machine on a large trailer. Locke gives the driver his instructions, while the others hang back. The bulldozer puffs smoke, and clanks down off the trailer.
The first pass the machine makes over the ground, ripping the hair off the earth, looks like an act of great violence. The bulldozer does resemble a beast, but the creature is both unruly and extremely methodical. Gradually, the sense of disruption goes out of the scene. The machine makes its first cuts. It goes back over the same suddenly dark ground. Piles of earth mount up. The hole deepens and, as sand appears, turns orange. Watching the bulldozer work is restful and mesmerizing. Its noise discourages speech, leaving each of the party alone and thoughtful for moments.
Ground breaking: On every continent and many islands, people used to undertake elaborate rituals when they undertook to build. Augury assisted choices and planning of sites. In northern Ireland, for example, lamps were placed on stones that marked two corners of an incipient house, and the site was deemed safe to build on if the lamps stayed lit for a few nights. Elsewhere, to ensure the strength and safety of a building, human and surrogate victims — animals and various objects — were entombed under foundation stones. In the Balkans, as recently as the late 1800s, builders digging a foundation hole would entice a passer-by near so that the innocent victim's shadow would fall into the excavation. The builders would cover the shadow with a stone, or mark out the shadow's length and breadth and bury the measurement of it. The ritual ensured the foundation's durability. The victim, it was thought, would die within the year.
No bodies are being buried in this deepening cellar hole. No one has watched for omens. There is only desire. This group does have a few worries. They have not settled all the details of the plan. They have not arrived at a final price for the house. They have not yet signed a contract. Jim Locke wanted all of that done before this day. Locke felt he had to go ahead, knowing that if he delayed he might not get the excavator for weeks. But Locke can imagine events that would leave him holding the bill for this work. Both he and the Souweines have begun to build on faith, without much knowledge of each other.
The party lingers awhile. The bulldozer's cab begins to sink beneath the level of the field.
For eight years, Judith and Jonathan shared a duplex with another young couple, but both families grew too large for the place, and reluctantly they all agreed that the time for moving on had come. Judith's parents had settled in a new house on about twenty sloping acres. Jonathan and Judith looked around. They decided that they'd like to buy a piece of her parents' property. Jonathan and Judith liked the idea of locating three generations of their family on adjoining land. It was a traditional arrangement that had grown uncommon. They imagined many advantages. They also thought it was a slightly risky undertaking, but they like to see themselves as people who are not afraid of taking chances. Actually, the only obvious problem was that Judithsometimes bickers with her father, Jules Wiener. She remembers Jules closing out disputes, when she was still a child, by saying to her, "My house, my rules." Now when he visits her house and takes out a cigar, she says, "My house, my rules. No cigars." She smiles when she says her lines, but the joke sometimes leads to sharper words. "I'm pretty direct with my father, and he's pretty direct with me," she explains. "As they say, I come by it honest." As for Jonathan, he is hardly a typical son-in-law. He adores Judith's mother, Florence, and he and Jules have been friends ever since Jonathan was seventeen and came courting Judith. Like Jonathan, Jules is a lawyer, and it's a family joke that if Jonathan and Judith ever sued each other for divorce, Jules would opt to represent his son-in-law.
So Judith and Jonathan made their offer to her parents, who concealed momentarily their great delight, lest they seem too eager and stir up second thoughts. Jules made some vows to himself. "I can see a steady stream of grandchildren coming our way. The door's open. But it's not going the other way. If twenty cars are here for a party, I'm not walking over to say, 'What's going on?'" Jules and Florence deeded to Jonathan and Judith about four acres of land. The Souweines would have a house built on it by the time their twins entered kindergarten in the fall of 1983.
Jonathan is polite and very direct. In conversation he tends to curtness, but let him get on a subject that truly engages him, such as a coming election, and he becomes positively garrulous, tapping his listener's arm for emphasis, talking so swiftly that his words slur. He looks his best at such moments, or running a meeting, or speaking in front of a political gathering, or striding down a street. He clearly likes command. He is an inch below six feet. He has broad shoulders. He comes at you a little sleepy-eyed, wearing a small crooked grin, and carrying his arms out from his body in a way that makes you think of impending showdowns in Westerns.
Jonathan started college on a basketball scholarship, and even now, in a business suit, his hair in middle-aged retreat, he looks like a busy play-making guard — what sportswriters call the spark plug type. He was a good athlete and a better student. He gave up his scholarship, went to Columbia, participated in protests against the Vietnam War and campaigned for a liberal, antiwar congressman, and went on to Harvard Law School. He imagined himself becoming a lawyer who would work for the public good. He spent a year clerking for a federal judge and another in the department of consumer protection of the Massachusetts attorney general's office; in between he took command of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) and in that capacity led a number of lobbying campaigns, for solar energy and a bottle bill and against white-collar crime. Then Jonathan ran for district attorney of Hampshire and Franklin counties. It was now or probably never, he told Judith. Against all predictions — he was a newcomer, outspoken, and even a little left-wing — Jonathan won the Democratic primary. He lost the general election, and soon afterward he became a country lawyer. For the sake of his family, he gave up running for office, but he has kept his hand in as an epistolary politician. He writes letters to editors assessing political candidates. He writes about burning issues of the day and also about local fund-raising events. He has written so many letters and so many have been published locally that a Jonathan Souweine letter to the editor has become a virtual institution in Amherst and the towns nearby. Some people think he is still running for office, but clearly he is writing letters instead.
A former lieutenant in Jonathan's campaign remembers a quiet day in their office, when a stranger, a middle-aged man, walked in off the street and asked what sort of name was Souweine.
"French," said Jonathan.
The man looked greatly relieved. "Thank God. I thought you were Jewish."
"I am," said Jonathan pleasantly.
"He looked right at the guy," his former lieutenant remembers. "Jonathan told him he hoped that religion wouldn't be an issue in the election. He talked to the guy for about ten minutes, and I remember as I watched, thinking, 'This is Jonathan in one of his best moments.'"
A squash partner of Jonathan's had believed that winning mattered more than most things to Jonathan, and then one day Jonathan made him wonder if he had ever had the slightest idea who Jonathan was. They had played to a dead heat. They were in their fifth and deciding game. The score was tied. It was Jonathan's serve. But Jonathan held the ball. He turned to his opponent and declared that this had been such a fine and even match it seemed a shame to spoil it by going on. Wearing his cockeyed grin, Jonathan offered his hand.
Jonathan says, "If I'm confronted, I'll instantly fight." He has observed in others — in a law partner, in Bill the architect — a quieter way of contending. "What I call Protestant good manners." He has seen that approach succeed where his own had failed. "I haven't been able to integrate it into my life," he says. "But I can see it now." Sometimes — after he's spoken his mind at a school committee meeting, for instance — Jonathan leaves a roiled-up wake. Some people dislike him — that proves he's alive. And maybe he ought to occupy a wider sphere than the one he has chosen. But Jonathan has fun.
He does not deny himself the pleasure of a gaudy necktie now and then. He has a way with children. He emerges from a movie about Robin Hood — his favorite hero — teaching his boys how to swashbuckle down the street. He says, "I love trials. I love the intensity, the action." Losing the race for D.A., he insists, was a fine, enlightening experience, nearly as rewarding as winning, he guesses. After he had lost, he wrote a letter to the local paper, and in it he quoted Teddy Roosevelt, that Achilles of American politicians, as follows:
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Jonathan seems to believe in coming home with his shield or else on it. Judith likes to mix it up now and then, too. She is small, with black curly hair. She hopes to become a representative to the Amherst Town Meeting, a yearly congress on town affairs that usually lasts for days. It's some people's idea of torture, and her idea of fun. Of the fights between her teachers' union and the local school board, battles in which she will participate all during the building of her new house, she says, "There's one guy on our team who's not confrontational. But me? My idea is you yell, you scream, you pack the room and have emotional floor fights. What could be better? So we lose. At least we'll go down kicking and screaming." She explains, "If you grow up with a lot of yelling and screaming, yelling and screaming doesn't scare ya. In fact, you kind of like it."
At a party, while standing among old friends discussing current movies, Jonathan reminds Judith that Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl on Broadway presided over their first date.
"Remember what I wore?" says Judith, looking up at Jonathan.
"A sort of green thing."
"No, pink. With a Chinese design across the front."
"I don't remember that." Jonathan stares off, as if toward memories.
"It was very pretty," says Judith to a female friend beside her.
"Actually," says Jonathan, "I invited my friend Bruce. But he said, 'You don't invite boys to a show, dummy. You invite girls.' So I invited Judith."
Judith turns to her friend and tells her that just before that first date, Jonathan broke up with another girl and her most recent boyfriend dropped her. "The reason he dropped me was because Jonathan and his friends came over and gave him such a bad time. Bad." She turns to Jonathan. "Thanks a lot, guys. That was great. I just lost a boyfriend."
"He wasn't good enough for you."
"You were just jealous because he got eight-hundreds on his college boards."
"He cheated." Jonathan gazes across the room. "You know," he says, "if it'd been the eighties, Jude, things being what they are, I might have ended up with Bruce."
Judith smiles fully at last, and to the woman beside her she says, "Seventeen years old, and I never had another boyfriend after that."
Judith is exaggerating, but Jonathan himself likes to say, "Judith and I have always been married." Jonathan has friends but he does not cultivate many close ones. When Judith points this out to him, he says, "I already have a best friend."
She's the bosomy, softhearted, affectionate, challenging mother, who minds everyone's business and who says, when Jonathan scolds her for offering unsolicited advice to friends, "They want my advice. They just don't know it." She is also a woman in a suit. She has a master's and doctorate in education and has done a great deal of postdoctoral work, particularly in the study of ailments that cut children off from learning. She has worked as a guidance counselor and a special education teacher. She has contributed to her field. She is "Judith" or "Judith Souweine," and she sometimes corrects people who forget or don't know and call her "Judy" or "Mrs. Souweine." She also laughs a great deal and often at herself. Her smile has light. It tempers the occasional sharpness of her tongue. She's self-assured, sarcastic, and merry as birdsong in the morning. Most strangers find it hard not to warm to her. She cries easily. Her nose turns red beforehand. She calls Jonathan "Souweine," and "Pook," and sometimes "Poo-keroo."
Excerpted from "House"
Copyright © 1999 John Tracy Kidder.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
In a Workmanlike Manner,
A Note on Terminology,
Acknowledgments and Sources,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,