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Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace is a fascinating book that brings to life an important subject: history. It’s back cover promises that it tells the story of one family from 1810 to the present – and the house that they all lived in. There’s a patchwork of memories on the front and back cover – a woman quilting, a horse-drawn carriage, a model T, a Howdy Doody puppet. But they’re drawn in an old-fashioned style by Wendy Anderson Halperin – which makes the book feel like a thing of history, too.

The title page shows seven pictures of a girl planting flowers – but they’re arranged like panes of glass in a stained-glass window. Even the title itself is set in a fancy seraph font. “Your great-great-great-great-grandpa built this house,” the girl’s grandmother explains in their nursery. But this picture – and every drawing in the book – is fringed with a colorful filigree, like the ornaments on the frame of a painting.

Anne Selby’s simple text is just a starting point for illustrator Halperin. (Halperin shows a second picture on the same page of a bearded man in the forest – and a third one which shows him chopping a tree that he’d use to build the house.) While Selby writes that the man cleared the land, built a chimney and planted corn, it’s up to Halperin to bring it to life. She contributes 15 separate drawings to the page of the man hard at work – moving rocks, chiseling boards, stacking logs, and reaping his harvest. They suggest an entire life that’s been preserved in fragmented memories.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandma baked corn bread on the fireplace stones,” Selby continues. And soon the illustrations are showing glimpses of the homesteading wife and the rest of the family. There’s stew-cooking with an enormous pot, and feeding the children with ears of corn. One of the children grows up to be “your great-great-great-grandfather,” explains the narrating grandmother. “He grew like corn in the field…”

“Then he cleared more land.”

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and the idea that we could somehow, for a moment, make contact with lives from the past. So this book is almost magical, granting that wish of seeing our history. There’s rows and rows in a long-ago field, filled with thin stalks of wheat and grains. And there’s more pictures showing the plants, plus the family’s cows, and their sheep. On the fence rail around the field, there’s even a grey and white cat!

The sheeps’ wool is spun into warm shirts and britches by that man’s wife. She strings dry beans and apples to dry for dinner in winter. She stitches quilts into baby blankets, which will warm “your great-great-grandpa.” And he grows just as tall, in a house which is now larger. As the next generation begins…