Book Review & Giveaway ~ Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 

A Novel

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker is much more than it seems when you first look at the cover.  The new paperback version, released last Tuesday, July 15, 2008, is very retro with the simple picture of a red and cream checkered apron and a weathered look to the ink, as if this copy had been collecting dust on a shelf for the last sixty years.  But what this book holds inside is an epic story about three generations of the Mickelson Family of Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, the effect of two world wars on a family and the people surrounding them as well as a curse placed on the gorgeous, imposing, massive family house that overlooks the town as if looking down its nose.  At least that is what the towns people, especially members of the Ladies Aid, think of the Mickelsons and their house on the hill.  Little does the town know that this family of wealth and apparent great fortune in all they touch really suffers from heartbreak, deceit, family secrets and gut wrenching sadness.
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
{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}
Author, Ellen Baker, will be joining us in the coming weeks with a guest post.  She has also graciously agreed to provide a signed copy of Keeping The House for a giveaway contest here at Planet Books.  To qualify for a chance to win a signed copy of this wonderful book, please leave your name in the comment section of this post by Midnight EST on Friday, August 1st, 2008.  To get an extra chance to win, please write a post on your own blog about this contest and link it back to my review.  Check back here on Saturday, August 2nd to see who wins.  Good Luck!! 

You can learn more about Ellen Baker at her website and her MySpace page

39 thoughts on “Book Review & Giveaway ~ Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

  1. This sounds fascinating, and very much my kind of book. Glad to know it’s out in paperback, so I’ll keep my eye out for a copy (assuming I don’t win it in your giveaway, of course :-)). Thanks for such a great review! You’ve mentioned how much you were enjoying this book before you finished it, so I was looking forward to seeing what you would have to say about it.

  2. With a 5/5 rating and the book description I just read, I know it’s one I would get lots of enjoyment from. Thanks for the giveaway.

  3. Hey there! I’m just dropping in to let you know I’ve posted this over at my Win a Book blog; there’s no need to enter me. I’m just trying to connect good books with appreciative readers…

  4. Great review, this is a book I have had my eye on anyway, now it’s definately a wish list book! Looking forward to the guest blog too. Thanks for the chance and I did blog and link back here.

  5. I’m sure I would like any book that you enjoyed so much! Thanks for offering this giveaway and thanks for entering me in your contest!

  6. look at all of us who comment when you put out an offer. too funny. yes, sounds like a good read. would love a signed copy

  7. I would love to win this. Please count me in for the draw.


  8. Hi, what a fantastic story line this book has. How Dolly Magnuson ends up filling up her loneliness is quite interesting. The women she learns about seem interesting and how each one filled their life with various distractions! I like how the women from the earlier years are so much like the 1950 time period. Please enter me in your delightful book drawing. Many thanks…..Cindi

  9. Wonderful Review this sounds like a wonderful story, I would love to be entered into the contest for a chance to win this book! photoquest(at)bellsouth(dot)net

  10. I enjoyed your review and interview. The retro cover art really catches my eye. Please enter me in the drawing!

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