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CARPE LIBRUM: Revisiting childhood memories and characters for unexpected joy

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world. 

dee-williams-4The Big Tiny
Blue Ridge Press, 2014
By Dee Williams
pgs. 304

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
Simon & Schuster, 1946
By Eric Hodgins
pgs. 237

In the mid 1980s, my family embarked upon a home-renovation project that would so overtake our lives, at one point our house painter lived with us for the better part of a year. This was when we were still eating dinner with one side of the kitchen table against the refrigerator—so if anyone forgot to get anything from the fridge, we all would stand, grab part of the table, and shuffle out of the way just enough to squeeze the door open for a bottle of ketchup. Then, we would all shuffle back toward the fridge until everyone had enough room to sit down again.

During this time I bought a copy of Eric Hodgins’ “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” from a library book sale. It chronicles trials and tribulations of one Mr. Blandings trying to build a house in Connecticut for his family. This should be a fairly simple and straightforward project, yes? Readers who answered “yes” clearly have never worked with a contractor.

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy starred in the 1948 film adaptation of the book. What begins as a simple move to more commodious housing for a growing family becomes the headache of Mr. Blandings’ life. The house he bought is declared structurally unsound and the contractor behaves as contractors are expected to: The estimate is merely bait for the switch, overage of the bill, double billing, lies, deceit, and general  malfeasance.

Even as a child, I could draw parallels with this book to our own family experiment in housing. It did a lot toward giving me sympathy to what my parents were wading through.

So, perhaps, it is not a surprise to be reminded of this book at a time I am knee deep in another restoration of the same house. I am also, as regular readers of encore know, restoring a ’67 VW camper bus. So picking up Dee Williams’ “The Big Tiny” was really a no-brainer. Williams’ book is part chronicle and part how-to guide for the creation of her tiny house. In the last decade, the tiny house movement has gained traction—mostly with homes on trailers which can be moved around the country. Many of the houses are built to be scaled miniatures, complete with porches, and in Williams’ case, skylights. To say they are eye-catching and adorable is an understatement. They are also smaller than my own home’s living room.

I am attracted to Williams’ book because her journey of building her own home, as a woman, is fraught with many experiences I have had with restoring my bus. Both projects fall into an area usually dominated by men: carpentry and auto mechanics. I nodded with recognition as Williams recounted occasions of men offering unsolicited (and completely inapplicable) advice. If I had a dollar for every time someone has stopped by the garage and assumed the bus wasn’t mine or I was in desperate need of their insight … wow! I could have paid for the project by now. 

One of the more frustrating days came when I was changing the start motor in my companion Beetle, Kafka. The start motor is in an odd location and required me to move my arm in a way nature did not intend, in order to hold it up in the air and bolt it onto the engine at the same time. At least three times while wrestling with it, I was interrupted by men determined to prevent this impending carnage. Each time the answer was the same: “Though I really appreciate your chivalrous and well-intentioned offer, it would take two or three times as long for me to teach you how to do this than to just do it myself. Thanks.”

That is not to say neither Williams nor I have benefited from help. Quite the opposite. But there is a difference between help offered as an equal and help offered from a position of gender superiority. Part of what I love about working on the bus is just how many lovely people I have met as a result. Working closely with Jock, John, Allison, and Austin when extra hands are needed is part of what makes the project so joyful. Williams recounts many of the same experiences with groups of friends coming out for “barn raising” afternoons to help her get through some bigger steps along the way.

However, she doesn’t begin with building her tiny house. The book’s journey actually begins with new home ownership in a traditional neighborhood in Oregon: What is necessary to own a home financially; how to maintain it; and what is the cost on an emotional and mental scale? Her journey to building a tiny home and selling her normal-sized house is one filled with tremendous introspection: How many burners on a stove does she need? What size refrigerator/food storage does she actually need on a daily basis? Some questions would be all but unanswerable for many of us. To ask them and contemplate them—not necessarily with the intention of scaling down to the smallest possible, but just to understand ourselves better, is an exercise many of us could benefit from.

Ultimately, I love “The Big Tiny” because Williams’ voice as a writer reminds me so much of myself. She talks about working on her house one day and unknowingly, accidentally sticking dog fur to half her face, then meeting her new neighbors who never quite get over that first impression. I can so relate. 

At a time when I am struggling my way through a massive home renovation and life reassessment, these two books really helped bring back into focus the enormity of whatever I am attempting to accomplish, both physically and emotionally. Why am I going through the restoration of both the house and bus? Is the end result the important part? Or will the process ultimately be what I remember and value? 

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