Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: The Irresistible Henry House

Author: Lisa Grunwald
Publisher/Format: Random House (2010),e-book 354 pages
Characters: Henry Gaines, Martha Gaines, Barbara Gardner
Subject: home economics and child rearing theories
Setting: fictional college campus; Hollywood; London
Genre: historic fiction
Source: public library electronic download

 Henry (House) Gaines was a practice baby.  Born in 1946, given up for adoption by his unmarried teen-aged mother, he became a "House" baby in a university Home economics program where he was "raised" by a procession of young women majoring in home economics.

Today, our high school students often carry 10 pound sacks of flour, diapered and dressed in baby clothes which they must "care for" for a period of days/weeks/months--an assignment designed to impress on young people some of the limits and responsibilities parenthood imposes on parental time and freedom of movement.  Some of today's high schools even have robot or mechanical 'babies' programmed to cry, wet, burp, sleep, etc.  But in 1906, when Cornell University instituted the idea of a Practice House, and contracted with a local orphanage to care for practice babies, the concept was quite radical.  It subsequently spread to many colleges across the country and continued well into the 1960's.

Lisa Grunwald gives us a fictionalized account of one such experiment.  Henry was only 6 weeks old when he came to live in the House.  Martha Gaines, the house mother, is a stern widow who goes strictly by the book of no-nonsense child rearing.  Babies were fed on schedule, bathed, walked, and dressed on time, with no cuddling, picking up, soothing allowed.  After all, if a child learned he could cry and get picked up, then he would cry all the time!  Each class of 8 student mothers rotated living in the house for a week at a time for one or two semesters of 'child-rearing'.

So Henry was "Raised, as a consequence, not with a pack of orphans by a single matron but as a single orphan by a pack of mothers....(he) started life in a fragrant, dust-free, fractured world where love and disappointment were both excessive and intertwined." (pg. 7)

Martha did not allow emotional bonding with the babies, either for herself, or her students.  Somehow, Henry didn't get the message, and Martha found herself falling in love with this particular infant.  One of the other practice moms also exhibited a special attachment to Henry.

Without spoilers, this is the story of Henry's life...how he came to stay in the practice house beyond the normal one year limit and be raised by Martha as her son.  How he came to use her last name.  How the lack of a male role model, and the constant need to please a number of women impacted his emotional life as he grew. How his search for, and subsequent relationship with, his birth mother colored his perceptions of parenting.  It is the story of Henry, from his birth to his ultimate assimilation as a young adult into the drug culture of the sixties, of his adult relationships with his mother(s) and with young women his own age, of his life as an graphic artist both in Hollywood and London, and his search for permanence in his family setting.

Ultimately, I saw this book as an indictment of an experiment, as the story not just of Henry, but a study of the need for permanent bonding relationships of infants and parents, of one human with another, and of the need for trust to be established and honored.  Grunwald has given us an extraordinary picture of human relationships, and of the universal need to belong to a family.

Henry's story is well told, and well worth reading.


  1. I read about this book somewhere else before, but I must say, you really got my attention now.
    It sounds very interesting...good review.

  2. This sounds like an intriguing and powerful book. I think it's very important, essential for children to have at east one stable, trust-worthy and loving adult in their lives while they grow up. But a few more probably is more advantageous for them.

    It sounds awful for a baby to get no "cuddling, being picked up or soothing".

    Thank you for a terrific review!
    ~ Amy

  3. Glad u enjoyed this one Tina; it is on my TBR list. Nice review.


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