Friday, November 14, 2008

When the White House Was Ours

No, this is not a memoir soon to be co-authored by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

It’s a wonderful new novel by Indiana writer Porter Shreve. The white house is a crumbling mansion in Washington D.C. in which 13-year-old Daniel Truitt’s dad, fired from yet another teaching job, starts an “alternative” school where teachers and students will be equals. The year is 1976; Jimmy Carter’s living in the real White House. The school is called Our House, after the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song of the same name; its so-called faculty includes Daniel’s parents and a contingent of hippies: Daniel’s lethargic uncle Linc, Linc’s wife Cinnamon (formerly Cindy), and her lover, Tino, who’s main purpose in life is to stick it to the Man. As for the students, there’s Daniel himself, whose big pleasure in life is digging up weird facts about the American presidency; his sister, Molly, the same age as Amy Carter, whose dream is to attend the same school Amy does and be best friends with her—and a ragtag bunch or lost souls and malcontents.

I actually taught in an “alternative” school in the seventies, and everything about this book rings absolutely true—from what I came to think of as the “Noble Savage Theory of Learning,” in which teachers believe that teenagers actually know more than they do because they are unfettered by society’s constraints, to the fabulously flaky classes—like Cinnamon’s art class in which the students paint a montage of images on Linc’s stolen car to disguise it. There’s the wacky sense of camaraderie, the inevitable logistical disasters, the sometimes sketchy relationships between teachers and students who let the barriers down and set out to learn together.

But like all good novels told by the teenagers living inside them, this is a coming-of-age story. It’s about Daniel being set-down yet again in a new place, surrounded by new people, trying to make sense of his parents’ choices and their rocky marriage. Trying to find a place where he belongs.

I love this book! I’m adding it to my (long) list of “adult” books that teenagers would love, too.

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