Restoring a home serves as an extended metaphor for understanding decades-old family dysfunction, informed by Mennonite influences, in this debut memoir.
Hershberger, a retired English teacher, was no stranger to renovation or restoration when her Realtor contacted her about the Roberts house, about to be listed in Syracuse, New York. But the author, after being involved in 20 such projects, had just downsized to a three-bedroom bungalow that she intended to be carried out of in a box, and claimed no interest in “doing” another house. Furthermore, the Roberts domicile had little to recommend itself—architecturally unappealing, moldering, and derelict, all at an asking price that topped the neighborhood’s comparable dwellings. Despite these disincentives, Hershberger was inexplicably drawn to the house and embarked on the renovation of a lifetime, made more exacting by her determination that this would be her own home. The divorced mother of three was brought up by a Mennonite minister and teacher so miserable with their own lives that three of their four children were so psychically scarred that they could barely function in the real world. Hershberger worked through many of these issues, along with her own failed marriage, interest in the history of the Amish and Mennonites, and other literary and intellectual issues, during long hours of paint stripping and wallpaper peeling. Alternating with the room-by-room accounts of the restoration are memories of her childhood or stories of her relationship with her parents in adulthood. Most of the transitions are seamless, but at times, the memoir aspect overwhelms the far more appealing accounts of home improvement. While Hershberger repeatedly discusses her mother’s dissatisfaction and bitterness, as well as her father’s penuriousness, her claims that her parents’ marital dysfunction resulted in her siblings’ mental illness are not well supported (indeed, her only consultation with an outside authority occurs late in the narrative, when she discusses reading Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac). Nevertheless, readers should enjoy the fun parts of the book—house porn at its best, interspersed with inspiring quotes (for example, Emily Dickinson’s “To comprehend a nectar requires the sorest need”), and anecdotes about Mennonitism.
An engrossing combination of historic renovation, memoir, and literary and religious history.