They say home is where the heart is, but when your heart has been torn apart by death, divorce, betrayal and abandonment, where does that leave you? In Dana Reinhardt's new book for young adults, How to Build a House, we find out.
The story follows a teen volunteer, Harper, as she builds a house for a needy family and learns along the way that a home is much more than the sum of its four walls and a family does not necessarily include blood relatives. Reinhardt's smart, funny and poignant writing style strikes a chord of compassion and self-awareness as we follow this Los Angeles teen struggling to understand the complex relationships in her life: a loyal but faulty father, a loving but betrayed stepmother, an angry best friend/stepsister, a cheating boyfriend and a host of strangers she meets at a volunteer camp in a small Tennessee town. Harper, who is also a keen environmental activist, has chosen to spend her summer building houses in Bailey, a town that has been decimated by a killer tornado. Like the town of Bailey, Harper feels significantly affected by events beyond her control—and Reinhardt leads us bravely down this path of destruction and rebuilding.
The initial inspiration for the story came from a simple walk in her neighborhood, Reinhardt says from her home in Los Angeles. "A ton of new houses were going up in the area, and I was literally living with the sound of hammering all the time," she recalls. "It started me thinking about the permanency and the impermanency of home." Reinhardt, whose parents split when she was very young, has dealt with her own complex family relationships. "Family gets redefined across the course of one's life," she says, and sometimes it's hard to know exactly how to deal with the changing landscape. Although she grew up in the Los Angeles area, she spent much of her formative years in boarding school in Connecticut and then on to college at Vassar, followed by a short stint at New York University Law School before returning to her native California. There, she finally discovered her own definition of home: "I now have a husband and two children, and ultimately, I don't care where I live, as long as I'm with them," she writes on her website (danareinhardt.net).
Reinhardt turned to writing young adult novels after a varied series of pursuits that included working in the foster care system, being a fact-checker for a movie magazine and doing research for documentary films. Her first book for teens, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (2006), won considerable acclaim and was followed by Harmless, the story of three teens trapped in their own web of lies, in 2007. Until she started writing How to Build a House, Reinhardt had been to Tennessee only once. "I had driven through, and I fell in love with the area," she says, but she had never spent any significant time there. "So much attention was being paid to post-Katrina New Orleans at the time I was starting the book, but it didn't feel quite right to me to have this take place in New Orleans," Reinhardt says. So she concentrated on the lesser-known disaster areas where a teen like Harper might find solace in volunteering. That's when she rediscovered Tennessee. For an author—and the L.A. teen she created—who has spent most of her life on either coast, the middle-America community of Bailey, Tennessee, was the perfect setting for this coming-of-age story. "The middle of the country is as foreign as any part of the world I can imagine," Reinhardt admits. The town itself was a creation of Reinhardt's imagination, but when she started researching the area, something strange happened. "I got to a place in my writing where I realized I needed to go back to Tennessee to get all of the details right, and as I was driving about an hour outside of Memphis, I realized there actually was a town just like I was writing about—except the people had all packed up and left." It was an eye-opening experience that convinced her she was definitely on the right track in terms of her setting.
As for volunteer work, Reinhardt sees it as something that benefits the participants as much as the recipients. "I think especially now, as kids are growing up in these pressure cookers, so focused on perfect grades, extracurricular activities and SAT scores, it's really important for them to step away and see what others are doing," she says. "There's something amazing about being far away from your comfort zone with your peers in the process of making the world better." Reinhardt's own theory of "home" will soon be put to the test again as she and her husband pack up their things and move from L.A. to San Francisco this summer. But if the saying—and Reinhardt's theory—is true, and home truly is where the heart is, she shouldn't have any problems finding her footing.
Heidi Henneman makes her home in New York City.