TCU Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-875-65408-9.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 06/15/2011
"We shape our dwellings," Winston Churchill wrote, "and afterward, our dwellings shape us." He had Blenheim Palace in mind when he wrote those words, that huge hulk of a house, a gift of Queen Anne, that hung like an albatross around the neck of the Marlborough family. But the same thing can be said of the dwellings of many of us, as Janis Stout demonstrates in her memoir, This Last House.
Stout begins her story with a "remembrance of houses past," a brief tour through the houses of her childhood and during a first marriage in which she lived in eighteen different houses. With the marriage came three boys, the eldest of whom was blind and developmentally disabled. As her husband climbed the career ladder, Stout tended the children and worked on her masters degree and then her PhD, and eventually began her own career as a college professor.
The first marriage came to an end when Stout was 42. A second marriage, to a fellow professor, was happier and more stable, with only five moves, each mutually chosen and dictated by the couple's changing professional goals. Both defined themselves in terms of their work until finally, they reached retirement age and began contemplating what they hoped would be their "last house," a home where they will learn to stop being employed and "be retired."
Retirement opened up new vistas of time, space, and opportunity for Stout and her husband. They purchased a piece of undeveloped rural land near Albuquerque, New Mexico, which they called Cerro Espinoso, Prickly Ridge. Over the next five years, they designed their house and then spent a year building it—with difficulty, since both they and their contractor were inexperienced in home construction. At Cerro Espinozo, they spent time learning the land and settling into the house of their dreams—the house that had occupied their imaginations for so long.
But then things changed. Stout began to be uncomfortably aware of a strong need to fulfill her responsibility to her blind and developmentally disabled son, in his early fifties and living in a residential facility in Fort Worth. For a time, she and her husband negotiated this responsibility by traveling back and forth to Texas, but it was a demanding 1200-mile round trip and she knew that a time would come when they would not be able to do it.
So Stout and her husband came to the momentous decision to make one "last" move, to a small town an hour from Fort Worth. But in a sense, they didn't move at all, for they essentially rebuilt the very same house they had left behind on the cactus-covered ridge in New Mexico. As the memoir ends, she and her husband are living once again in their "last house," enjoying the small community and making the hour-long drive to Fort Worth once a month.
As I read and thought about Stout's story, I thought about my own relationship to houses and about our American fixation on houses, disastrously exemplified in the housing bubble of 2000-2008, where over-valued, over-priced homes came to weigh down their owners like albatrosses. Like Stout, those of us who came of age in the late 1950s moved frequently, changing communities as readily as if we were changing our clothes. Like her, we idealized our houses, seeing them not so much as material constructions that fitted our needs but (as Stout puts it) as an "expression of ourselves and what is important to us" as well as the "outward signs of social distinctions." Each house we acquired gave us a chance to reinvent ourselves in a new place and a new community. As I read, I couldn't help wishing that Stout had considered some of these larger issues, and that she had seen her own personal journey from one house to another in the context of the American dream of the perfect house, which for most of us has been fraught with unintended and sometimes tragic consequences.
But by the end of her book, Stout herself seems to be able to acknowledge that the "last" house, her ideal house, is an illusion framed in irony. "Once again," she says, describing her feelings as she and her husband resettled themselves in Texas, "we hope it will be our last house. But we have learned not to count on it."
Janis P. Stout retired from Texas A&M University in 2002 as dean of faculties and associate provost. She is author of three novels and ten scholarly books, most recently, Coming Out of War: Poetry, Grieving, and the Culture of the World Wars and Picturing a Different West: Vision and Illustration in the Tradition of Cather and Austin.
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