The matriarch of the Mickelson family is Wilma. She first arrives in Pine Rapids as a new bride in the summer of 1896. She has left her family and her beloved piano studies behind and is now the newest member of the successful Mickelsons and their lumber mill. Wilma escapes the doldrums of everyday married life with the help of her piano and the sonatas and waltzes she plays all day long. As I was reading I was curious what the pieces she was playing actually sounded like so I checked them out. I wasn’t surprised to discover that the three pieces that Baker wrote into Wilma’s repertoire are all devastatingly sad and melancholy in sound. Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor and Nocturne in B-flat Minor are both utterly beautiful pieces of piano music that sweep around the room. As I listen to them now, I can easily see Wilma Mickelson playing these pieces with such emotion. That these pieces of music were some of the only friends this character had in this strange town is heartbreaking. The third piece of music which filled the house on the hill when Wilma still played was Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. A popular and well known Beethoven movement, the notes create a sound that represents hopes and dreams but then reminds the listener that reality is not always what you hope it will be.
Wilma’s husband John is a man of drive and power. He wishes only the best for his new bride but knows that her life may not be what she wanted. They have four children but we only really get to know two of them; Jack & Harry Michelson. Their stories span both The Great War and World War II. The segments when the voice of Jack and his son J.J. share stories of being Marines at war are so vivid and full of the terrors of war, it’s hard for me to believe that even an author with as much knowledge of this period of history as Ellen Baker has could write of the experience of war with such vivid imagery and emotion. It blew me away! Keeping the House shows the spoils of war and when these troops return to the real world, they are not what their families remember them to be. Unfortunately this book can give insight to what our present day troops are going through mentally when they return home to their loved ones but are haunted by destruction, death, brutality and unwhole bodies, both physically and spiritually.
This book holds some of the most memorable female characters I have ever read too. Besides Wilma Mickelson there is Dolly Magnuson, the newlywed who is the present day (1950) reflection of Wilma. She is uninspired and bored in her role as wife and housekeeper to her husband Byron. She wishes for adventure but settles for a seat in the Ladies Aid quilting circle. After learning that these ladies know of the Mickelson family and what they believe to be true of the family members’ business, Dolly becomes obsessed with the idea of asking Byron to buy her the old, forgotten and apparently deserted Mickelson house. Dolly starts to piece together the history of the family when she breaks into the house on the hill and begins cleaning it up, in hopes of living there one day with her husband and having a perfect marriage with him. She comes across pictures and Wilma’s old piano but also discovers that not everything is as the town gossips think it was. One of my favorite quotes from the book is Dolly imagining what the town gossips might say about her.
“Maybe Pine Rapids wouldn’t be so bad. Even if she was going to stay married, that didn’t mean she had to care what the town thought of her. Let them talk! Starting with tonight, when they would comment on how shocking is was that her husband had had to take her out for supper on a Tuesday. She could hear them now: ‘I’ll bet she was reading a novel all day, instead of fulfilling her obligation to the household! She’s just spoiled, expects dinner out like it was her due!'”
Just when you suspect that the story will continue down one road, a twist comes out of nowhere and makes you second guess the characters’ motives and this continues through to the end. As is life! I absolutely loved Keeping the House and will say that it has become one of my favorite books I have ever read. I loved the character and plot development and the periods in which the story was set. Ellen Baker succeeded in creating a book rich in detail, that is thought provoking and moving. An edge-of-your-seat gripping tale of family secrets and love lost and won. At the front of my copy of Keeping the House, there is a list of reviews from newspapers and authors. The Booklist review shares my feelings about this book.
“Brimming with luscious detail that authenticate the story’s various time periods, from early to mid-twentieth century, Baker’s accomplished, ambitious debut novel is a majestic, vibrant multigenerational saga in the finest tradition of the genre.” – Booklist
You can learn more about Ellen Baker at her website http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ and her MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/authorellenbaker.