“We, the House,” by Warren Ashworth and Susan Kander,
Blue Cedar Press, 2021, 204 pages.
Price: $20 paperback; $6.99 Kindle (Blue Cedar Press)
“We, The House,” by Warren Ashworth and Susan Kander, delves the social history of America through the prism of one prairie family
Romance — or something like it — emerges between two inanimate objects in “We, the House,” a novel set in a Kansas town from the late 19th through the early 21st century.
Yes, inanimate objects. The would-be lovers in this offbeat but engaging tale are not human beings, but a house constructed in the Italianate style and an early American painting of a deceased widow. Their decades-spanning conversations address the social history of America through the prism of one prairie family.
Co-written by architect Warren Ashworth and composer Susan Kander, “We, the House” could easily have come across as too twee or gimmicky. But the novel proves to be not only insightful on a wide range of subjects — including architecture, photography and women’s suffrage — but also impressive in its ability to engage us in the back-and-forth between Ambleside, the house, and Hermione Peale, the widow.
Ashworth and Kander blend fictional and nonfictional elements to trace the arc of an archetypal American family. Although the main characters are Ambleside and Hermione, the story revolves around Ambleside’s inhabitants — Henry and Emmaline Hart and their family, as they grow and evolve over the decades.
Henry is an ice merchant — and apparently more open-minded than his wife, whose bigotry toward Black people and Jews he finds dismaying but nonetheless tolerates. Despite their differences, their love endures — as the house and painting bear witness to the family’s ups and downs.
Among the novel’s virtues is its lyrical prose, such as a Depression-era description from Ambleside’s point of view of wanderers in an alley:
In the time since the rain had stopped, we began to observe a new type of visitor walking, always walking, up our allée at regular intervals. They were always men, though never the same man. Always alone, they approached the kitchen door, never the front door, and . . . they were never admitted within. Shortly the man would depart, more often than not with a new small bundle of something. Mrs. Peale told us these people were called hobos…
The exchanges between Ambleside and Hermione often involve themes that are relevant to the current American political climate, as in the following passage (Hermione speaks first):
“Voting is how people in a democratic society like ours choose their leaders, individuals who, ideally, serve them and help guide them as a group, as a society.”
“Ah! Very different, we think, from the birds we have just been watching who seem to have no leader.”
“An apt observation. Unlike your birds, human society, without leadership, unfortunately reverts to chaos — a Greek word meaning an abyss, a deep, deep hole in the ground. Chaos is not pretty.”
Another conversation is particularly pertinent, as Hermione references the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and its impact on the family matriarch:
I know now that the entire country is ravaged by this influenza, and even every corner of the world…. I do believe Emmaline is through the worst of it, though the disease has left her weak as a piece of string.
In an illuminating author’s note, Ashworth reveals that Ambleside “is a real house. It resides to this day on a small rise in Newton, Kansas. The Harts were my great-grandparents, and all named members of their family are real.” Hermione, however, is a fictional creation.
For all its charms, “We, the House” has a significant flaw: Ambleside and Hermione are spectators rather than participants in the chronicled events and family dramas. As a consequence, the reader is at a remove from the action. In effect, it’s storytelling as a secondhand account rather than a firsthand experience.
And the ending is something of a disappointment. Clearly, we’re meant to regard the bond between Ambleside and Hermione as not only beautiful but indestructible, and any threat to it as nothing short of tragic. But Ashworth and Kander simply haven’t laid the groundwork for such a visceral response. And actually, how could they? At the end of the day, it’s a relationship between a house and a painting, and there’s no way that passion of any magnitude could credibly enter into the equation.
“We, the House” is perhaps best appreciated as a tribute to the American spirit — for better or worse. In an era in which interstate highways are taken for granted, the fact that automobiles now speed through country where roads didn’t exist tends to go unacknowledged. Neither is enough thought given to the theft of that land from the Indigenous population.
Yet there is much to be admired about America’s rise from scrappy upstart to indisputable world power. And this novel celebrates the guts and gumption it took to get there.