THE LIVING AMERICAN HOUSE: The 350-Year Story of a Home--an Ecological History by George Ordish

THE LIVING AMERICAN HOUSE: The 350-Year Story of a Home--an Ecological History

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Bartons, as the Duxbury, Mass., house is called, was built in 1630 by English colonist John Barton and expanded through the centuries. After the last Barton owner's death left the house vacant, the attic was occupied for a year by a fugitive from Shay's ill-starred rebellion; the new owner, Stephen Deane, found him cowering there in 1788 and was so impressed by his notes on the house's smaller inhabitants that he kept him on as gardener. Deanes remained, and in 1920 Victoria Deane married one John Barton, who claimed descent from the original builder. His son, however, sold the house in 1978 for its present use as a French-style restaurant. In this domestic natural history Ordish traces both-the human and the non-human inhabitants of Bartons, discussing as he does the lives and habits of mice, mites, wood borers, and some 150 other creatures who commonly coexist with humans. This sometimes takes us far afield from Bartons (do we need an evolutionary history of birds from their Jurassic origin?)--but overall the old house gives Ordish's chronicle of human-commensual (or human-pest) interaction a comforting continuity, a downstairs view of old New England customs, and a diverting accumulation of anecdotes. We hear of an elderly black butler wrongly accused when Stephen Deane II's wine bottles turn up partially empty. ""There's maggots in the corks, sir,"" cries old Joseph on discovering the moth larvae that exonerate him. (The same species had destroyed a French silk shawl intended by the founding Barton wife for her new granddaughter-in-law.) That same granddaughter-in-law, Ordish tells us, spoke up later for a 45-year-old hired ""girl"" accused of witchcraft because of her ""familiar"" relationship with a favorite cat. Among the curiosa, we learn of the 1680s practice of storing dried beans in one's ""go-to-meeting"" boots. As moving the beans about destroyed the troublesome bean weevil's eggs, regular Sunday church-going was indeed rewarded by a lower infestation level. In all, an agreeable confluence of human and natural history.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1981
Publisher: Morrow