We have no indication of how many volumes will follow this one, the first in a series called "The American Palace," which is designed to trace the history of the White House from the beginning to the present--a span of about 190 years. Unless he plans to go to eight volumes or more, Evan Rhodes seems to be off to a slow start. His first volume covers a mere 22 years, from 1792 to 1814. Those were, of course, extremely busy years for the old building, beginning when it was still a hole in the ground, hidden amid swamps and forests in the middle of nowhere.
The first installment clearly demands a sequel; it ends with unresolved questions. In the final scene, midway in the War of 1812, the British are moving on to Baltimore, having attacked Washington and burned down the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings. In one of the British wagons, a wounded American prisoner, young Jeremy Brand, lies in chains. He props himself up on one elbow as the wagon trundles past the smoky ruins of the White House, which he has helped to build, and utters a close parallel to Scarlett O'Hara's "I will rebuild Tara" of a half-century later: "It will rise again, I swear it . . . if I have to rebuild it with my own hands, it will rise again."
Like Scarlett, Jeremy exists in a curious blend of fact and fiction. At least in its first volume, this series is a sort of sandwich--minced fiction thickly spread on lightly toasted history. There are certain problems in this combination, and they become more problematic because the history (even with lots of maps) is slightly stale and the fiction is rather heavily salted. They are also so tightly mashed together that it is sometimes difficult to say which is which. Jeremy is one side of a fictional triangle over which the historical material is stretched liked the canvas of a tent. The other two elements are his rakish half-brother, Zebulon, an occasionally lovable sort of rogue who has sold Jeremy into bondage as an indentured servant, and Rebecca Breech, who spends much of the book trying to choose between them while also becoming (anonymously) an influential newspaper columnist.
To complicate her decision-making, both men run off just as she seems ready to make a final choice--Zebulon to the Mediterranean and the war against the Tripoli pirates, and Jeremy on the Lewis and Clark expedition, where he complicates the love triangle by meeting and impregnating an Indian girl.
As a backdrop to this rather banal plot, Evan Rhodes uses the city of Washington and the White House almost as central characters--more believable than most of the humans. An enormous quantity of research has obviously gone into "Bless This House," and the products of this research are potentially the most interesting part of the book, except that they are so awkwardly stuck into the story.
The first four presidents come on stage for brief appearances, but usually they seem to talk and act like figures in a school pageant. Washington, for example, examines the construction of the house in which he will never live, and pauses to tell Jeremy of the agony of Valley Forge and the vision that drove him to persevere when all seemed lost. John Adams discusses the differences between himself and Jefferson, Dolly Madison gives parties, diehard Tories engage in plots and espionage to undermine the government, duels are fought and seductions undertaken, while wars, explorations and the Louisiana Purchase rumble in the background. It is a very busy book, and that may be why it takes a whole volume for only 22 years. Perhaps it will become less voluminous when it gets to administrations like those of Coolidge and Eisenhower, when nothing much seemed to happen.
Rhodes writes serviceably, if seldom with notable grace. He has a disturbing habit of introducing vocabulary from the late 20th century (words like the verb "to structure") into the dialogue of his early 19th-century characters. But his odd blend of fact and fiction may be one way of presenting history to people who are unlikely to read it in a pure form.