I am a loner, an introvert by nature. I think I have always been that way. Even as a teenager, I preferred reading a book in the backyard rather than going out to “play with your friends” as my mother would often badger. Yet as a twenty-something accounting intern, listening to my supervisor tell about all the different foods his Italian family served on Thanksgiving to the many relatives that congregated for that holiday, I was jealous.
So, part of what attracted me to The Big House by George Howe Colt was the fact that, in part, it was the story of his far flung, old money Boston Brahmin family. The other thing was the fact that the Big House was situated on Cape Cod, not in Chatham where I take a week’s vacation every year, but in Buzzard’s Bay, where George’s ancestors used to ‘summer’, not merely for the week.
I wonder periodically how the descendants of the self-made men of the late 1800s and early 1900s are faring as those fortunes are divided and subdivided, generation after generation. So it was with Colt’s family; the original Atkinson fortune has been divided so many times that none of his generation could afford the upkeep on the one hundred year old, 11 bedroom, 6,000 sq. ft. summer home that has no indoor showers, no heat, outdated electrical wiring, etc. It is with the thought of an impending sale of the house that Colt visits, one last time.
Colt talks of his family history, of the outward appearances of closeness offsetting the inner conflicts going on within his extended family. He describes his ancestors who envisioned the Big House and all the workmen hired to build it. Readers are educated into the Brahmin mindset and get drawn in to his family. oOw wonderful would it be to have three or four generations congregating for the summer!How great would it be to have bunches of cousins that you can play with all day! Readers are saddened, though, as various family members exhibit psychological problems or are afflicted with those ailments common to most senior citizens.
Colt talks about what the Big House meant to various generations: a chance for unity, for family gatherings, a haven against the workaday world. Readers understand, at least I think they do, the need to keep the Big House in the family and the extent to which the Colts go to obtain that end, primarily renting it out in the summer. The house I rent for my measly week in Cape Cod was built in the mid-1800s and has wide plank floors that dip and rise at various points. It has low ceilings, steep staircases and doors with latches, no knobs…just like the Big House. Every year I say to myself that I would do anything to make sure this house would stay in my family, if I was lucky enough to own it. It is a legacy. It is history. Colt describes the Big House in such loving terms, it is clear what the house means to him.
The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home is a biography of a house and a family. It elegantly describes how I feel about Cape Cod, about owning a house that attracts family and leaving it for future generations, about the large family I don’t have but sometimes wish I did. The Big House surprisingly aroused a lot of emotions in me. I hope it does the same for you.