Baker’s sprawling debut recounts the woes of a wealthy Midwestern family from the turn of the 20th century to the dawn of the 1950s.
The imposing, vacant Mickelson house attracts the attention of 20-year-old housewife Dolly Magnuson when she arrives in Pine Rapids, Wis., in 1950. Her husband Byron, part owner of a Chrysler dealership, is content with their undistinguished bungalow, but Dolly, ambivalent about a life of dutifully following Good Housekeeping recipes and other dictates for happy homemaking, dreams of restoring and someday owning the Mickelson mansion. She pieces together its history while attending gossipy meetings of the local Ladies Aid and befriends one of the family’s youngest and most troubled members. The narrative circles back to follow a second story line beginning in 1896, when newlyweds John and Wilma Mickelson move into the house built by his father, Knute, a Norwegian immigrant who amassed a fortune in the lumber industry. Wilma, a talented pianist who sacrificed school for marriage, is instantly smitten with her brother-in-law Gust, and he with her. Although they repress their desires, her less-than-wifely feelings torment Wilma, especially after Gust dies in a logging accident. Years later, her grief is compounded when favorite son Chase joins the Marines with his older brother Jack and is killed in World War I. Built on land that may be cursed, the house seems to doom successive generations to lucklessness in love. Jack’s daughter Elissa falls for a Southern corporal who unwittingly holds a catastrophic family secret; her alcoholic brother JJ, who lost part of his leg in World War II, has an unsettling effect on his Uncle Harry’s fiancée—and on Dolly, when she meets him. But Dolly and JJ, as well as the other remaining Mickelsons, may yet find the means to forge their own destinies.
Melodramatic contrivances test the reader’s credulity, but appealing characters and a deft, non-linear structure generate interest and suspense.