Archive for the ‘Georger Howe Colt’ Category

I’m a sucker for memoirs about selling old, family owned Cape Cod homes since I love the island that much. That’s why I loved The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. He evoked the charm, the family, the sadness when his family sold their summer home. I hope To the New Owners by Madeleine Blais would evoke the same emotions, but alas, it did not.


Instead, Ms. Blais, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, described life on Martha’s Vineyard, the growth of the Vineyard from a whaling town to a summer destination for the elite, and then, to some extent, life with her family.

To the New Neighbors is not a love story about a somewhat ramshackle summer home, lived in for fifty years by her in-laws’ family, that the author is sure will be knocked down and replaced by a McMansion. It is more a psychological study of the island, the residents’ desire for privacy, the way the island makes summer guests forget the rest of the world (until a president or two decide to vacation there), the ramifications of a breach of that privacy, etc. She touches on the life of year-round residents facing many of the same issues found on the mainland.  She name drops quite a bit.

Ms. Blais is an award winning journalist and To the New Neighbors comes across more as a newspaper article than a memoir. If you are looking for a more poignant story, The Big House will be more your speed.

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EndOfThePointSusan mentioned that she likes reading the inscriptions at the beginning of books and that made me take particular note of the inscription in Elizabeth Graver’s latest novel, The End of the Point. “When I began to tell you children about the different ways in which plants sent their young out into the world, I had no idea that I should take so much time and cover so many pages with the subject.” This is a quote from Mrs. William Starr Dana, author of the children’s book Plants and Their Children (more about this book later), and purportedly the great grandmother in Graver’s story. The quote, however, summarizes, in part, what Ms. Graver’s book is all about…sending our children out into the world.

It is also about ‘home’. The End of the Point is the secondBigHouse family saga set in Cape Cod that I’ve read recently, the first being The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt, the former being fiction and the latter non-fiction.

The End of the Point describes the Porter clan who summer in Ashaunt, MA, near Buzzards Bay. It is in four parts, each narrated by a different person:  1942 narrated by Bea, the Scottish nanny to the Porter’s youngest daughter, Janie; 1947-1961 narrated by Helen, Janie’s older sister; 1970 narrated by Charlie, Helen’s son, named after her brother who died during WW II and 1999, told in the third person. Bea describes how the second World War intruded on the serene life of Cape Cod and her life in particular…the opportunities taken and possibly the regrets for those not taken. Helen, always the strong willed daughter recounts her life, her struggles to achieve in a man’s world and how her treatment of Charlie may have been part of his struggle to find himself, although the 1970s were certainly an era in which many college students were ‘lost’. In the last segment, Helen, Janie and their other sister, Dossy, are in their later years, one suffering from cancer, one from mental instability.

In all of their worlds of turmoil, though, the one place that seemed to bring peace and calmness is Ashaunt, the Big House (funny, in both books, the main house was called the Big House). Even amidst the hubbub of growing and extended families, Ashaunt was the refuge from troubles, its natural beauty (even in the face of land sales and new home construction) and sense of home easing the mind.

Graver has provided stories of some very strong women: Bea, in her quiet way, has her strong sense of duty to the Porter children, at times to the detriment of her own life; Helen, the wild child has the drive to succeed in academia’s male world; Gaga (Helen’s mother) runs her family while her husband is wheelchair bound for most of his later life and Janie, seemingly the sanest of all Porter girls makes a strong life for herself, her husband and six children. Even Charlie, a lost boy since his early teens, ‘finds himself’ in the end. Each character could very well be the focus of a novel, each has a story to tell, especially Bea and Helen.

I know the strong feeling of wanting to provide a ‘home’ for our children, a place that they can seek refuge and comfort, regroup and go back out into the world rejuvenated. The Big House(s) described in these books and the families that occupied those houses gave their children their sense of well-being and being home. I’m suggesting you read both books, The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver and The Big House by George Howe Colt.

Now I said I’d mention Plants and Their Children by Mrs. William Starr Dana (aka Frances Theodora Parsons).Plants and their Children

Frances Theodora Parsons was an American botanist and author active in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was an active supporter of the Republican Party as well as the Progressive Party. She was also an advocate of women’s suffrage. Frances started taking walks in the countryside after the death of her first husband (William Starr Dana). These strolls inspired her most important and popular book, How to Know the Wildflowers (1893), the first field guide to North American wildflowers. It was something of a sensation, the first printing selling out in five days. The work went through several editions in Parsons’s lifetime and has remained in print into the 21st century. Plants and Their Children, written in 1896 was named one of the 50 best children’s books of its time and was suggested for reading to young children in the classroom. The inscription at the opening of The End of the Point (I only gave you a snippet of it) interested me so I did a little (very little) research and after reading that Plants and Their Children was named one of the 50 best children’s books of its time, I was compelled to buy it. I’ll let you know how it is.

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BigHouseI 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.

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