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How to Build a House

Review

How to Build a House

Harper thought her life was just about perfect. Although her mom died when she was very young, Harper and her father found a new family --- and real happiness --- when he married Jane. Jane is a true mother to Harper, and Jane's two daughters are not just stepsisters --- they're the real deal. In particular, Harper and Jane's daughter Tess have been best friends and sisters almost as long as Harper can remember.

In the past few months, though, the carefully built family that had sustained her for so long has come crashing down. Seemingly without warning, Jane and Harper's dad announce that they're getting a divorce. What's more, Tess and Harper have had a falling out, and it seems that Harper has not only lost her family but also her best friend. Harper's best guy friend, Gabriel, also has betrayed her trust and broken her heart.

Lost, grieving and in crisis, Harper does the only thing she knows how to do --- turn her attention to helping others. She's always been a do-gooder, raising awareness about global warming and other environmental issues. But now, Harper turns her efforts to another real-life crisis in an attempt to distract herself from her own: "Catastrophes come, and they come," she reflects. "They come in all shapes and sizes, one after the other, lined up like planes in the sky, waiting for their turn to land."

Soon Harper is on a plane of her own, heading from southern California to tiny Bailey, Tennessee, where she'll join other teens spending 12 weeks to rebuild a family's house in the wake of a devastating tornado that has flattened much of the town. As she works her muscles and learns how to build a house from the ground up, Harper casts her mind back to the various recent catastrophes in her own life that have led her to this most unlikely place. She is making friends and even starting a new romance with Teddy, the son in the family whose house she's helping to build. With the help of good friends, a new love and lots of back-breaking work, can Harper rebuild not only a house but also her own happiness and sense of herself?

In less capable hands, the metaphor of house-building that is at the center of HOW TO BUILD A HOUSE would seem artificial, preachy or heavy-handed. In Dana Reinhardt's novel, however, the symbol of house-building is provocative, dynamic and compelling. Most important is the character of Harper herself. Thoughtful, vulnerable, yet strong and resilient, Harper is the kind of character most readers would want for a best friend. Responsible without being holier-than-thou, genuinely caring and reflective about her life and her world, Harper seems like a real teenager, not just one created to fulfill a literary theme.

Also key is Reinhardt's excellent storytelling skills --- in alternating sections headed "Here" and "Home," narrator Harper relates her day-to-day experiences on the work crew while gradually revealing the complicated circumstances back home. Along the way, as she thinks about her own house and builds a new one for a near-stranger, her work inspires genuine reflection on the meaning of words like "home" and "family," reflection that seems natural and organic and that will inspire readers to reflect thoughtfully on these themes as well.

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Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

How to Build a House
by Dana Reinhardt

  • Publication Date: May 27, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 227 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
  • ISBN-10: 0375844538
  • ISBN-13: 9780375844539