“WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS is as good as it gets . . . A tale of sheer delight—beautifully told in perfect pitch.” — Jim Lehrer, host of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
“[Shreve] tells smart, inventive, sociologically intriguing stories, and his latest is a fun-to-read novel with great relevance and charm.”— Booklist
“The political backdrop is perfectly played, as is the bittersweet nostalgia that makes the book and its freewheeling gang irresistible.” — Publishers Weekly
In When the White House Was Ours, Porter Shreve (“a wonderful and accomplished writer” — Lorrie Moore) brings us the atmospheric and captivating story of a family’s struggle to stay together against great odds. Loosely based on his own childhood, the novel returns Shreve to the territory he handled so well in his debut, The Obituary Writer (a New York Times Notable Book)—a young protagonist grappling with his father’s legacy, set against a sharply etched political and cultural landscape.
It’s 1976, and while the country prepares to celebrate the bicentennial, Daniel Truitt’s family is falling apart. His father, Pete, has been fired from yet another teaching job, and his mother, Valerie, is one step away from leaving for good. But when Pete lucks into a crumbling mansion in the nation’s capital, he makes a bold plan to start a school under his own roof where students and teachers will be equals.
Daniel is elated: first, by the locale, because he is a boy in love with presidential history, and second, with the freedom to do what he wants in this alternative-school setting. But soon the money runs out, the residents take drastic measures, and like the Carter presidency, what begins with hope slides into crisis.
Replete with the wry humor, human insight, and cultural resonance that characterizes Shreve’s critically acclaimed fiction, When the White House Was Ours will be a joy to anyone whose family has lived through an idealistic time and ended up in an era of compromise.
WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS by Porter Shreve
Publication Date: September 17, 2008 * $12.95 paperback original
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PORTER SHREVE was born during the Lyndon Johnson administration, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has attended three presidential inaugurations: Carter ’77, Clinton ’93, and Clinton ’97. In the 1970s his family started an alternative school called Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House, and some of When the White House Was Ours draws on that experience. Shreve’s first novel, The Obituary Writer, was a New York Times Notable Book, and his second, Drives Like a Dream, was named a Chicago Tribune Book of the Year, among other honors. He lives with his wife, the writer Bich Minh Nguyen, in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana, where he directs the Creative Writing Program at Purdue University.
Advance Praise for
WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS
“WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS is as good as it gets. Porter Shreve tells the story of the Truitts, a most unusual displaced family who come to Washington, D.C., from the Midwest to start an alternative school in a white house. They arrive about the same time Jimmy Carter, the man from Plains, comes to another white house with a credo about trust. The end result is a tale of sheer delight—beautifully told in perfect pitch.” — Jim Lehrer
“Porter Shreve does what few writers can—he casts a spell, bringing you immediately and completely into a world you won’t soon want to leave. This is a humane, tender, and intimate story about what it means to be a family, to be idealistic in an all too pragmatic world.” — Joe McGinnis, Jr., author of The Delivery Man
“In this absorbing and sharply observed novel, Porter Shreve offers rare insight into the anxiety that goes hand in hand with idealism. His thirteen-year-old narrator is a worried yet wonderful guide through this story of an imperfect family and an imperfect nation struggling to become their better selves.”
— Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Madeline Is Sleeping and Ms. Hempel Chronicles
“[Shreve] tells smart, inventive, sociologically intriguing stories, and his latest is a fun-to-read novel with great relevance and charm . . . The coming-of-age element is irresistible, as is the impossible dream of an anything-goes school, and what a wild and crazy extended family Shreve has created in the age of free love and Watergate.” — Booklist
“Shreve’s third novel skillfully interweaves the story of teenager Daniel Truitt with that of the United States at a crossroads . . . The political backdrop is perfectly played, as is the bittersweet nostalgia that makes the book and its freewheeling gang irresistible.” — Publishers Weekly
“The narrative nicely counterpoints Daniel’s coming-of-age story with the bewildering, and even endearing, goofiness of this memorable time in his—and the country’s—growing up.” — Kirkus Reviews
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WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS
by Porter Shreve
I’ve adapted the following from “Made by You,” an essay I wrote years ago for the anthology How We Want to Live, about the alternative school that my parents started in Philadelphia in 1973. I’ve used this true story as the basis for When the White House Was Ours. But I’ve moved the setting to Washington, D.C., during the Carter administration, filled the house with a ragtag group of misfits, dreamers, and disciples of Abbie Hoffman, and visited all kinds of trouble on my characters, including poverty, marital strife, infidelity, illegal narcotics, sexual transgression, theft, more theft, and false imprisonment. By comparison, real life wasn’t bad at all.
The best days of my parents’ marriage began in late spring 1973, when my father received a start-up grant to open an alternative school in a four-story turn-of-the-century Federal in Philadelphia. My mother would soon be pregnant with their fourth child. We lived in a cozy fieldstone cottage a few blocks away, with both of my grandmothers, my uncle Jeff and the remaining hippies from a small commune Jeff had formed in Colorado.
My father, well liked around the city because he had been the star of the University of Pennsylvania football team during its few promising years, was someone people had always felt generosity toward. When he was growing up, teachers and neighbors had pitched in, sending him to private school and college. Something about him — his modesty, his father’s early death, the fact that he was a spectacular athlete who sang in the choir and embarrassed easily — brought forth goodwill. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that a near stranger named Woodward, who owned scores of houses in North Philadelphia, including the one we lived in, would on the day my father received his grant hand him a ring of keys, saying, As long as you’re starting a school, you’re going to need a schoolhouse.
Rent free, with a one-year renewable lease. A tall beige stucco house on a charming street in Mount Airy, it was in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. With help from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, my father named the school “Our House,” as in “Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House.” He advertised in the community papers and posted flyers around local schools, and by the end of summer nearly a hundred students had enrolled.
Nineteen seventy-three was the year of the Vietnam cease-fire agreement. I was seven years old. The year before, Nixon had won reelection in a near-record landslide, and many young people felt that the sixties had passed them by and the seventies threatened a return to the unenlightened past. Philadelphia crept with runaways and dropouts and students for whom traditional education no longer held an interest.
Our House welcomed them all.
For some, it provided an after-school program. The schools they went to didn’t offer classes in photography, painting and drawing, music or creative writing, or their high school courses had yet to reflect the social progress of the past ten years. At Our House kids could take arts courses, feminist literature, religions of the world, Indian myths, and urban cultures.
For others, the school offered a freethinking community. Many evenings, guests would come — musicians, poets and writers, artisans, anthropologists — and stand in front of the fireplace playing instruments or lecturing or taking questions from the students, who sat cross-legged on the floor or slouched on comfortable couches. The first floor had another large room, used as a gallery space for students and local artists to display and sell their work. The walls and tables were filled with pottery, wooden toys, candles, crystals, dreamcatchers, macramé, batiking, weaving, tie-dye, paintings, photographs, stained glass, poetry chapbooks.
Besides serving as the school’s administrator, my father taught the course in urban cultures. He’d take his class to South Philadelphia, where the students would meet and talk with people in the neighborhoods — aldermen, civic leaders, Baptist ministers, Polish deli owners, Italian barbers. They’d study the architecture of both Independence Hall and the Gloria Dei Church. They’d see Rothkos at the Museum of American Art and study graffiti under the bridges on Snyder Avenue, asking kids in playgrounds to explain the symbolism.
My mother, who had just published her first novel, taught creative writing and modern American poetry, and my uncle Jeff, who had been a National Outdoor Leadership instructor out west, led a course in wilderness education, taking his students around the Wissahickon, down the Shenandoah, and through city parks. My younger brother and sister and I never needed child care. We had two live-in grandmothers and a school of our own.
A Conversation with Porter Shreve
about WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS
How did the idea for When the White House Was Ours originate?
The source of the novel goes back to some of the most eventful years of my childhood in the early 1970s, when my parents received a start-up grant to open an alternative school in Philadelphia. Along with my uncle and his hippie friends, who had just returned from a long, strange (six-year) trip out west, my family taught a series of courses, many of them experiential, where they’d use the city as a classroom, studying graffiti as part of art history, for example, or coming up with neighborhood revitalization projects to propose to local aldermen. My parents lasted only a couple years before money got too tight and they had to look for new jobs, though I did recently learn that the school survived for several years afterward. In my novel, I’ve used some of the actual courses my family taught, as well as the real name of the school, “Our House,” borrowed from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune. But beyond that and a few anecdotes based on true events, like the time my uncle invited some Mormon missionaries and Hari Krishnas to debate each other, this is a work of fiction.
Generally speaking, do you think of your fiction as autobiographical?
My three novels have all been inspired by family stories. The Obituary Writer goes back to my grandfather’s unlikely friendship with a young widow he met while working at the Cincinnati Post; Drives Like a Dream began when I was wondering how my mother must have felt when all four of her kids moved away from D.C., where she’d raised us with an all-for-one, one-for-all communal spirit; and When the White House Was Ours is based on my family’s alternative school. Invariably, I begin writing a story as it actually happened, then characters and situations I can never anticipate appear out of nowhere and take over. Often the secondary characters, like the hippies Tino, Cinnamon, and Linc in When the White House Was Ours, create trouble for the protagonist, and the clash has a transformative effect, rendering him or her less familiar to me and in the process loosening my imagination, so that by the end of the story there’s little relationship to autobiography, at least in factual terms, though its emotional core remains.
Why did you decide to set When the White House Was Ours in Washington during the bicentennial rather than in Philadelphia in the early seventies?
I was seven when Our House opened its doors, and though I’ve heard lots of stories about the school, my own memories are hazy. I know I took guitar, pottery, and poetry classes, and I hung around the Our House coffee shop pretending to be useful. But I recall 1976 very well — it was when I first became of aware of politics. My family moved to D.C. amid all the bicentennial hoopla, and my father volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s campaign. Like my narrator, Daniel, I became obsessed with presidential history and was so into the bicentennial that I painted my room red white and blue. I still feel nostalgia for that time, when I sensed my parents’ excitement that a Democrat might win back the White House and bring a new idealism to Washington and the country.
This sounds a lot like what’s going on today.
I do think there are connections between 1976 and 2008. The Middle East is the dominant subject, gas prices are out of control, and everyone’s worried about the economy and rising costs. People also seem tired of Washington insiders, and the candidate who appears to be more of an outsider and who seizes the mantle of “change” will probably have the best shot at winning. But I didn’t think about any of this while I was writing my novel. I was focused on whether the Truitt family would stay together or fall apart, how the hippies Tino, Cinnamon, and Linc would deal with their love triangle, and what kind of havoc the kids who enrolled in the school would wreak. Politics is definitely part of the novel, but it’s more in the texture than in the forefront.
Your title is certainly political. How did you come up with When the White House Was Ours? Did you plan to publish the book during an election year?
I began thinking about the novel during the 2004 campaign season, and I was probably so eager to see George W. Bush retired to his Texas ranch that when it didn’t happen in November I plotted my own small, personal retaliation and titled a book I knew very little about When the White House Was Ours. Like The Obituary Writer, I had the title almost before I’d written a word, and the title took me back to the alternative school, which was something I’d always wanted to write about, and then to the years 1976 and 1977. I remember my whole family standing in the cold on inauguration day watching Jimmy, Rosalynn, and Amy Carter walk along Constitution Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. At first I didn’t plan for When the White House Was Ours to come out in an election year, but as the story developed and began to resonate with the elections of 1976, 2000, and even 2008, I realized I was writing a nostalgic and perhaps even a timely book. The title gave me a firm deadline, too, something we writer/procrastinators are always grateful for.
The inauguration is not the only time the Carters and Truitts cross paths in the book. Did you make a conscious effort to connect the White House where Jimmy Carter lives with the white house where the Truitts start their school?
I was definitely looking to make that connection, but I didn’t want to be schematic or obvious about it. There’s a line at the end of the prologue that sets the idea in motion — “Like Jimmy Carter’s presidency, our years in Washington began with hope then slid into crisis” — and in some ways Pete Truitt and Jimmy Carter are similar. They’re both idealistic; they’re both outsiders who don’t quite understand how Washington works; they both mean well and believe that the White House can be run like a family business. And they’re also both victims of their own innocence and stubbornness and of the bad economic timing of the late 1970s, when, as John Updike wrote, “the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending . . . people are going wild, their dollars are going rotten.”
I also had fun connecting the presidential trivia that Daniel collects in his mini-biographies with some of the events that go on at Our House. The tensions between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson mirror the tensions between Pete and his landlord; the scandals of the Harding administration are similar to the trouble that certain Our House faculty members get themselves into; and the house seems to be haunted by something: Lincoln’s ghost, perhaps? So in a way the Truitt family is intersecting with many of the first families that lived in the White House — the Carters, especially, but others too.
You were born and raised in Washington, a true D.C. native. Yet this is your first book set there. What took you so long?
I was born in D.C., then moved with my family to Philadelphia, Charlottesville, and Houston before returning in 1976. One reason why I hadn’t written a book set in my hometown is because I needed some distance from the city, both to long for it and to recognize its contradictions. Washington is bureaucratic, a place where people are defined more by what they do than who they are, yet it’s a welcoming, international city, small in scale and manageable and less balkanized than most other urban centers. It seems conservative in its outward appearance of order — armed guards, choppers in the sky, statues of horse-mounted generals in every circle — yet it’s one of the most socially progressive patches of land in the country.
I left D.C. twelve years ago and have spent nearly half my life in the Midwest, which is probably why the Truitts in this novel are a midwestern family that moves east. My father is fourth-generation D.C. and my mother’s family moved to D.C., as many people do, when one of her parents got a government job. So I grew up knowing what it’s like to be from the nation’s capital but also to be just stopping through, and that tension is very much in play in When the White House Was Ours.
The publishing world likes to apply labels — writers come out of a certain school, tradition, region, or group. What labels have been applied to you, if any? How would you classify yourself?
I’ve written three novels set in three different cities and have a fourth under way set in yet another. I’ve used first person and third, and written from the points of view of a 61-year-old woman, an 80-year-old man, a 23-year-old innocent, and a precocious 12-year-old boy. So I’m not doing a very good job of classifying myself. I have been called a seriocomic novelist, though I don’t know exactly what that means. I guess I’m neither comedian nor tragedian, satirist nor realist. I do know that my books are more serio than comic — they’re about loss, after all — but at the same time they’re amphibious, like a duck tour. I remember an old Saturday Night Live faux commercial about a new product called Glimmer. “It’s a floor wax!” says the wife. “It’s a dessert topping!” says the husband. “Hey, hey, calm down, you two,” says the spokesman. “New Glimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping!” That’s me, the seriocomic novelist.