When most people think about home economics education, they might think about courses in basic fashion design and sewing, cooking, baking and household management. But what about child rearing? With actual children?
"When Grunwald learned about the existence of a practice baby program at Cornell University, she did what any good novelist would: she asked herself what would happen. . ."
Novelist Lisa Grunwald was surprised to learn about the phenomenon of “practice babies” as elements of home economics education at dozens of colleges and universities. These babies, found at orphanages and children’s homes, were “adopted” for short periods of time by colleges to teach undergraduate women the basics of baby and toddler care and were then permanently adopted by outside families, only to be replaced by another “practice baby” the following academic year. When Grunwald learned about the existence of a practice baby program at Cornell University, she did what any good novelist would: she asked herself what would happen to those practice babies as they tried to make their way out of the classroom and into the real world.
Granted, the practice baby at the center of THE IRRESISTIBLE HENRY HOUSE doesn’t quite have the typical experience. At the end of his scheduled time at Wilton College’s home economics practice house, the baby, Henry House, stays on --- claimed by Martha Gaines, the head of the program. Swayed by the unusual facts of Henry’s parentage and her own unexpected fondness for the boy, the usually iron-fisted Martha becomes devotedly attached to him, even as he grows up surrounded by a revolving band of young women, each assigned to care for him in turn.
Henry’s babyhood in the 1950s coincides with a fundamental shift in parenting philosophies that is played out in Martha’s imagined encounter with the newly famous baby guru, Dr. Spock. Far from adopting Spock’s more intuitive approach to child care, Martha doggedly sticks to her conviction that children should be placed on a schedule from birth, never coddled, and treated with a scientific objectivity guaranteed to raise a consistently independent and well-adjusted child. Aside from her imagined encounter with the famous baby doctor, Martha’s philosophy is at odds with those of her home ec students, many of whom rush to pick up Henry every time he cries, a practice Martha first forbids and then scorns.
But what about Henry, raised not only at the crossroads of modern parenting philosophies but also in an environment where it’s impossible for him to develop that close emotional bond with a single mother figure, a relationship that Spock and others viewed as essential for a child’s emotional well-being? Henry doesn’t have a single mother --- or any real mother figure at all. Instead, he’s constantly surrounded by women who indulge and admire him but inevitably move on.
As Henry grows up and learns the truth about his parentage, Grunwald explores these questions. She considers how Henry’s relationships --- not only with Martha and his birth mother but also with a variety of female playmates and, eventually, love interests --- are shaped by the expectations about women he formed in very early childhood. Not surprisingly, Henry remains both deeply interested in women and empathetic towards them, but also fundamentally distrustful --- and often with good reason. As Henry makes his way from preschool to a stint at a boarding school for troubled children to a career as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, his days as a practice baby continue to shape his life and loves.
Of course, Henry’s mid-century relationship crises develop in the context of the sexually charged post-World War II milieu, when returning soldiers and women’s greater desire for independence resulted not only in a bumper crop of babies but also in rapidly changing sexual mores that eventually birthed the modern women’s movement. In that way, Henry’s story is just an extreme version of the sexual and romantic confusion and complications that were everywhere in the mid-20th century. Henry, however, is also a fully realized individual character, not just a “type.” Readers will be moved by his vulnerability and will hope for his prospects for love, happiness and a genuine relationship with one woman --- even if it comes about much later than Dr. Spock would have hoped.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
The Irresistible Henry House