My 7-year-old twins enjoy historical fiction, anything that gives them a glimpse into how people lived in the past. It was hardly surprising then that one of them would choose Ginger Howard’s William’s House from the school library. The beautifully illustrated book features a fictional family that has moved from England to the New World in 1637. The father of the household, William, builds a home just like the house he grew up in across the Atlantic.
His house is perfect — that is, until the hot New World summers spoil his family’s meat and vegetables, the drier autumns turn the thatch roof into a fire hazard, and the wind threatens to crush his house with fallen trees and branches.
His wife Elizabeth is the first to react to these dangerous conditions, saying repeatedly, “Something must be done!”
William makes the necessary alterations, from building a root cellar to clearing the surrounding trees. While it’s hard to believe the speed with which William completes his DIY projects, the way he transforms his house into a uniquely colonial American structure is an important lesson for children about adapting to new surroundings and new ideas. The book also contains many interesting details about colonial life.
However, the book’s focus on William’s work, always prompted by Elizabeth’s command that “something must be done,” caused my daughter to ask, “Why did colonial women nag all the time? Doesn’t Elizabeth do anything else?”
While there are clues about Elizabeth’s work, the text does not adequately address what she’s up to while her husband alters their house. It’s as if the pudding, bread, and succotash the family eats arrive on the table by magic.
To address my daughter’s misunderstanding, I told her that, in the past, many people expected women to take care of their families inside the home while men worked outside of the home on farms or in businesses. However, I added, many colonial English women also worked on farms, doing everything from working in the fields to milking cows. I didn’t talk about indentured servitude and slavery and how those vile systems changed the division of labor in the household. That part of the conversation will come later, as will a more detailed discussion about the way our society has retained some of the gender norms from William’s and Elizabeth’s time.
For now, it’s enough for my daughters to know that real-life versions of Elizabeth didn’t just get to put their feet up as they ordered their husbands around. I knew I got my point across when my daughter replied, “They should’ve called this book ‘William & Elizabeth’s House.’”
Indeed. While I might expect a book from 17th Century to discount Elizabeth’s contribution to her family’s survival, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book from the 21st Century to do that. But at least it encouraged an interesting conversation with my children.
*The book was illustrated by Larry Day and published in 2001.