It's rare that a new novel by a respected writer is published by a mainstream press, gets reviewed in both the New York and Los Angeles Times, and yet fails to generate a single user comment here, even after six months of publication. And yet it happens a handful of times a year -- for whatever reason, a perfectly good book makes barely a ripple on the big pool of readers out there. In this particular case, I am inclined to blame the title, which ties the book too directly to the presidency at a time (the election) when presidential books are flooding the bookstores. Another problem is the terrible cover, which is utterly generic and does nothing to convey the book's tone or time -- if anything, it conveys the opposite of the book's tone!
This is all too bad, because it's actually quite an engaging story. The narrator is 12-year-old Daniel, whose family is moving to Washington, D.C. during the 1976 bicentennial summer under somewhat dubious circumstances. It seems that his father has been fired from another teaching/administrative post, and despite a quickly dwindling bank account, has decided to start his own freeform school in a rundown Victorian mansion in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Although this move is just another in a long line for Daniel and his younger sister, it's the last chance for their parent's marriage, which has been steadily worn thin by the years of bouncing around the country. If this school doesn't work out, it will be the last straw for their mother -- who is sick of the father's big ideas and shaky execution.
The story runs more or less in tandem with the 1976 presidential race, as the family arrives in Washington and struggles to acclimate and get the school off the ground. They are quickly joined by the mother's hippie brother, his hippie sort-of wife, and an abrasive hippie third wheel. With a combination of hard work, lying, grifting, tips from Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book," and luck, the odd collective actually manages to launch the school and gradually enroll some students. It's loosely modeled on the famous Summerhill school in England, where the motto is "Act first, ask permission later" and the teachers and students are all seen as equal collaborators. If this sounds very '70s -- well, it is. The story captures both the era's idealistic visions of possibility and change, as well as the inherent weaknesses of those ideals. So it's not that surprising when the family and school's high point coincides with the Carter inauguration, only to slide into malaise in the months that follow.
As a Washingtonian, I found it a compelling example of a family coming to the nation's capital with a dream and seeing that dream falter in the face of practical concerns. And having not spent the '70s in the U.S., it's an interesting glimpse into a time I'm unfamiliar with. Daniel is a capable narrator, with a budding love interest and an obsession with presidential trivia. Unfortunately, the plot relies a little too heavily on his having to keep a key plot point secret -- one of the few notes that ring false in the book. But if you're interested in fiction about the '70s or Washington, D.C., this is well worth picking up.
on January 11, 2012
I thought this novel told a pretty good story about dreamy-eyed hippie idealism in the 1970s. However, all of the adult characters are loathsome, and I ended up just being annoyed by the whole thing. The 12-year old narrator is caught between his feckless, loser father and his embittered, harpy mother; they both put him in the middle of their endless marital feuding. Add to this a bullying landlord/"friend", a ne'er-do-well cuckold uncle, his slutty, self-centered wife and her conniving, pigheaded lover, and you've really got a despicable crew here. And there's no eventual redemption except for the deus ex machina final chapter, which takes place decades after the rest of the plot.
I found this book on a clearance rack in a book warehouse while on vacation. It is a quick read and very quirky. It was definitely not what I expected but it does give good insight to what went on in the 70s (an era that I barely remember since I was not even a year old when the 70s started).
I must admit the title sounded interesting and while I was hoping for more politics than I got while reading this book, it is a well-written character novel. Every single one of the characters are vividly drawn from all walks of life and surely, everyone knows those types of people. Everyone knows a Tino, the handsome man who has a careless disregard of others' feelings; Valerie, the mom who is on her last thread of hope with her marriage; Peter, the confused teenager who is also the main character, trying to figure out how to keep his family together; Molly, the annoying little sister; and so on.
Peter's family moved to D.C. after his father lost a series of educational jobs. Riding on a promise from an old college buddy (another stereotypical figure of a slimeball raking in the dough), Peter's dad rented an old mansion in hopes of starting an alternative school. This is the story loosely based on the author's childhood. This novel not only tells of an unsuccessful attempt in creating a different type of school, it tells of living in D.C. during Carter's administration. It is also a well-drawn insight of how people are and how they react to circumstances in one's life.
It is a quirky but quick read. I am surprised that there are not that many reviews for this book. This book is a literary delight for the soul and one not so easily forgotten.
on December 22, 2012
I'm a lifelong resident of the DC area (city and suburbs), and I'm within 2 years of the age of the narrator of "When the White House Was Ours," so I eagerly checked out the book when I found it on a library shelf. I've stomped across all the places in the book, and I can vouch for the accuracy of the descriptions --- many of which are hard to imagine in today's rejuvenated, hyper-serious D.C.
However, this book is a huge disappointment. I read the first 4 chapters and was utterly bored. I skimmed the rest because I felt a commitment to sort of finishing it if I was going to do a review.
The book jacket indicates it's inspired by the author's own experience of growing up as the son of an idealistic father who created an alternative school in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, I think the author basically wrote a memoir, rather than a novel, and this takes him down some wrong tracks.
The author seems to think that because something really did happen, it's automatically interesting. Actually, a novel is interesting when it builds beyond reality to make larger points about the human experience or deeper points about individuals. This book does neither. It's not serious enough, nor funny enough. As a memoir, it's an engaging story (though it would need to be told differently); as a novel, it lacks drama and humor.
on July 29, 2014
I bought this book with high hopes, because I'm exactly the same age as the protagonist, and also live in Washington DC, so I thought it would bring back lots of memories of that place and time. Unfortunately, in my view, the book didn't succeed either on the level of plot (there really isn't much of one) or on the level of evoking a particular era (it really doesn't). There are fairly obvious references to some pop-culture events (Son of Sam, certain songs), but honestly it really didn't transport me back to 1976/77 in any particular way; there were no moments when I thought "wow, I haven't thought about THAT for ages!), nor any moments when I felt any bond with the protagonist based on our connections. None of the characters really came to life, or drew me in, in any particular way; I actually found all of them tiresome, and nothing happened in the book that caused me to care particularly about what happened to any of them. Hard to feel much nostalgia for the Jimmy Carter era, and this book certainly didn't trigger any. You can safely skip this one.