A year in the life of an experimental school, nostalgically evoking both politics and the sunset of hippiedom, in the ’70s.
Shreve (Drives Like a Dream, 2005, etc.) uses narrator Daniel Truitt, whose father Pete has recently been fired from his administrative job at a public school in the Midwest. Pete develops the cockamamie idea that he is just the person to establish an alternative school in the heart of Washington, D.C. A former college friend has a house to spare, so the Truitt family moves in, chases away spiders and cockroaches, spruces it up with paint and gets ready for a new chapter of academia. They name the school—located in an old mansion—Our House, after the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song. Trouble is, there’s little demand for a school like Summerhill, based on radical democratic principles and populated with an undereducated faculty. In addition to Daniel’s father, the teaching faculty includes Daniel’s uncle Linc, a refugee from a commune in the Pacific Northwest who arrives in a VW bus emblazoned with advertisements for Kool cigarettes. Linc is married to Cindy (aka Cinnamon), a 30-ish flower child who’s carrying on an affair (with Linc’s understanding) with Tino, the most unrepentant counterculturist of all. Tino is the Complete Anarchist, a great admirer of Chairman Mao and cynic-in-residence at the school. (He even steals UNICEF contributions on Halloween, claiming that all charities are rip-offs.) Needless to say, none of these putative faculty members have sterling academic credentials, but in conjunction with Pete they develop a curriculum that plays to their strengths. Each month features a different course of study—religion class is particularly popular because both Moonies and Mormons are invited in for a debate about marriage. Eventually the school implodes, primarily because of Tino’s indiscretions.
The narrative nicely counterpoints Daniel’s coming-of-age story with the bewildering, and even endearing, goofiness of this memorable time in his—and the country’s—growing up.