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Reviews Wed Apr 01 2009

Review: When the White House Was Ours by Porter Shreve

white house.jpgWhen the White House Was Ours
by Porter Shreve
(Mariner Books, 2008)

It's 1976, our country's bicentennial, and Daniel Truitt and his family are on their way to Washington , D.C. to make a new start on their lives. For Pete, Daniel's father, it is the chance to show he can make something of himself after several failures in his career as an academic. For Valerie, Daniel's mother, it is the last chance she will give her husband to prove that he has what it takes to provide for their family. And for Daniel and his sister Molly, it's just one more move in a succession of displacements in their constantly uprooted lives. But this time, things will be different for the Truitt family as they find themselves much more invested in their own potential achievements than they ever have been before.

When the White House Was Ours is Porter Shreve's loosely autobiographical account of his own family's embarkation into alternative education. The idea that Pete Truitt alights upon - starting his own school where the students direct the teachers and create their own curriculum - is not far off from the school that Shreve's own father started in Philadelphia in 1973. They even have the same name: "Our House," from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song. But though Daniel's life mirrors Shreve's at the outset, the story in When the White House Was Ours is Daniel's own. It is here that Daniel will learn much more than art, English, math and science: here he will learn what happens when the money starts to run out and you have to figure out how to survive on the cheap, he will learn about the devastation and disappointment secrets can wreak on a family, he will learn about the inklings of love and the truth that there is really no such thing as true free love.

Although the title may evoke images of current events, Shreve never makes the mistake of letting his fiction serve as a mouthpiece for his own political beliefs. It is his ability to emotionally involve the reader into the story that serves as the foundation of the novel - although it becomes clear that the school will fail, Shreve has you hoping that somehow the Truitts can pull everything together: "This period when we lived in Washington, in a white house nor far from the real White house, will always live in my memory as the pivotal moment for my family, but it also marked my dawning awareness that our lives were converging with something larger than ourselves, a whole country at a crossroads." This is the older Daniel narrating his twelve-year-old thoughts, realizing now just how much this school, regardless of its lack of success, changed all of their lives.

But it's the characters that really draw you in. Shreve paints vivid images of all those involved in this school so that their dreams and disappointments ring true. Daniel says of his mother, "Later I'd learn that she'd wanted to get a Ph.D. in political science but my father had persuaded her to go into his own field. I still don't know why he was so insistent that they both pursue teaching degrees. He hoped one day to open a school and perhaps he only wanted her to be his partner in this. Then again, maybe he worried about what might happen if his wife's career overshadowed his own." With such honest portrayals and a story that holds together even as the events therein fall slowly apart, When the White House Was Ours serves as a tribute to a time in everyone's history when things seemed so much simpler: childhood.

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