A Not So Very Fine House

By Caroline Preston,
whose most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."
Wednesday, November 19, 2008


By Porter Shreve

Mariner. 280 pp. Paperback, $12.95

After the exhausting excess of the over-analyzed, over-spun, over-financed 2008 election, Porter Shreve's charming third novel provides a nostalgic return to the simpler, more innocent days of 1976. Remember when presidential candidates trotted across the national stage without the benefit of tightly scripted talking points and Neiman Marcus makeovers? Jimmy Carter admitted to reporters that he'd committed adultery many times "in my heart" and that he'd spotted a UFO. He sported a Mister Rogers cardigan to drive home the point that every American, even the resident of the White House, needed to turn the thermostat down to 65. In that Bicentennial season, the American flag was something that flapped off a front porch, not a passive-aggressive lapel pin. The '60s idealism to reform every American institution from the White House to the school house still had traction.

Twelve-year-old Daniel Truitt, the tenderhearted narrator of "When the White House Was Ours," is obsessed with presidential history, and the saga of his family's rise and fall oddly parallels President Carter's. When his anti-authoritarian father, Pete, is fired from his latest teaching job, at a snotty Chicago private school, he announces to his beleaguered family that he plans to start his own alternative school: "a forward-thinking one, he said, where no one would be hemmed in by rules." Pete has even found a "free mansion" to house their school, courtesy of an old pal from his college baseball team who's become a real estate magnate in D.C. "Trust me," he tells his fed-up wife, Val, borrowing Carter's motto.

When the Truitts' junker van arrives in Washington in the middle of the blistering Bicentennial summer, the white house at the corner of Hill and 16th streets proves to be a dilapidated wreck with no furniture or air conditioning but plenty of cockroaches. It's not free, either: Pete's old friend expects rent after all. Before long, the marital tension simmering under the surface erupts, and Val takes off on long solo drives to destinations Pete breezily calls "Livid Lane" and "Bitter Boulevard."

The unlikely salvation for the Truitt family and their alternative school arrives in a stolen VW Bug painted with Salem cigarette slogans (remember those?): Val's hapless brother, Linc, and two fellow refugees from a defunct commune. Armed with advice from Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book," Linc and Daniel raid Lord & Taylor dumpsters to furnish the school. Even though they have no skills beyond growing pot and making dream catchers, "the hippies," as Daniel calls them, are given a few bogus degrees and drafted to fill out the faculty.

By September the new school, christened "Our House," after the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, is ready for business. Our House promises to be "self-governing and democratic" and to put students "back in touch with their natural 'goodness.' " Teachers are called "tutor-collaborators," and the curriculum offers flaky fare such as "Coyote in Native American Myth." The school motto, emblazoned on a handmade banner in the front room, is "Act first. Ask permission later."

Predictably enough, Our House attracts "a woolly band of underachievers who figured they'd pulled the ultimate scam on their folks, signing up for a pressure-free school." There's Brie, the 16-year-old nymphomaniac who's already been kicked out of two other schools, and Quinn, a black foster kid whom the Truitts enroll after they catch him stealing their television.

For a few months, Our House flourishes on high principles and high energy, just like the Carter administration. The Inauguration Day parade is the school's first field trip for Pete's "Government: Man and His Institutions" course. Taking Carter's plea for conservation to heart, the students winterize Our House and plant a garden in the sunless yard. The hippies manage to keep their drug use and free-love behavior under control, or so it seems.

It can't last, of course. After 100 days, both the Carter administration and Our House start to unravel. "The economy was stagnating, inflation and gasoline prices continued to rise, and Jimmy Carter's approval rating was slipping." Pete's approval rating slips, too, as Daniel realizes that his father lacks the leadership to keep either the school or their family afloat. "What kind of school was this, after all, where the kids were indistinguishable from the teachers, where there was no order and no one in charge? . . . My father . . . made me wish for someone I could look up to, like the presidents I'd been studying for years."

In his acknowledgments, Shreve writes that "When the White House Was Ours" is loosely based on his own family's experience starting an alternative school in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Coming-of-age tales that hark back to lovable, quaint times all too often cover the landscape and the characters with a thick dusting of powdered sugar. But Shreve avoids sentimental sludge with the masterly voice of Daniel, the anxious boy historian who tries to keep order in his fractured life by soberly documenting it, zany detail by zany detail.

As we recover from our own sugar high of the 2008 election, "When the White House Was Ours" offers a perfect antidote. Turn off the TV pundits, turn down the thermostat, and slip on a comfy cardigan.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company