If These Walls Had Ears
By James Morgan
275 pp., $22.95
Like many Americans in a mobile society, James Morgan has put down roots and pulled up stakes many times. By his count, he has lived in 25 houses, which always left him wondering: Who had lived there before him and what were their stories?
That curiosity reached a peak seven years ago when Morgan and his new wife moved into a spacious 1920s-era bungalow in Little Rock, Ark., with a wraparound porch and a massive elm in the front yard.
Spurred by a casual conversation with a neighbor, Morgan, a former magazine editor, began researching the house's past, tracking down previous owners and their families and talking to former neighbors. Then, stitching together interviews, old snapshots, and even diary entries, he turned his domestic sleuthing into a fascinating book, "If These Walls Had Ears."
Subtitled "The Biography of a House," his story traces the human drama that has unfolded within the walls of this five-bedroom home, located in the same neighborhood where Bill and Hillary Clinton moved after he lost the governor's race in 1980. Through seven decades and eight owners, the house has served as the setting for happiness and heartache, success and bankruptcy, marriage and divorce, lawsuits and family feuds, birth and death.
"The story of America has always been the story of a search for home," Morgan writes. "It's a restless journey in which we never quite seem to arrive."
The story of this particular house begins on July 18, 1923, when Charlie Armour, a soft-drink bottler, and his wife, Jessie, a home economist, paid $2,000 for the land at 501 Holly Stree. A month later they took out a loan of $5,800 to build the house. For 23 years the couple and their two children lived here, until a post-Depression business failure unraveled their dreams and forced them to sell. With the arrival of the next owners, Billie Lee and Ruth Murphree and their young daughters in 1947, the cycle of family life began again.
Over the years, 15 children - 11 girls and four boys - have called this address home. Owners, among them a civil engineer, a theater director, a teacher, an electronics wholesaler, and two writers, have hosted hundreds of parties, dancing the Charleston in the 1920s and wriggling to Hootie and the Blowfish in the '90s. Young people have courted on the porch. One desperate father painted upstairs windows shut to keep his daughter from sneaking out at night. A wedding was performed in the house, and men in dresses once roller-skated through the living room.
Yet Morgan's unusual "biography" is more than the account of a single house and its varied owners. Part social and cultural history, part autobiography, it also offers a reflection, a meditation, on the idea of home - the universal yearning for roots and security that involves far more than a search for the right four walls, the right space, the right neighborhood.
"All houses are fantasy, constructed as much of desire and dreams as wood and brick," he writes. "They're receptacles to hold not just us but also everything we want to be. Sometimes we don't even know what that is. Sometimes we move into houses empty and expect them to fill us up."
Morgan adds, "You make the best of wherever you live, but when you're in the right place - and this is broader than mere houses - your soul feels in sync."
Anyone who has ever relaxed under the shade of a maple in the backyard and wondered who planted it, or peeled off layers of faded wallpaper and wondered who hung it, will understand Morgan's fascination with "the myriad small ways in which we're connected to the lives that preceded us."
Perhaps because the first two families lived in his house a total of 43 years, they come to life more fully than some of their successors. Yet Morgan, a master of vivid detail, remains a skilled storyteller throughout. His affection for his house, with all its quirks and intrigue, also offers readers a backdrop for considering what their own homes mean to them.
He states, "If there's peace in your heart, your house will reflect it. If there's rage, your house will reveal it. If there's indecision or indolence, your house will bear the brunt of it."
The house at 501 Holly has withstood all these emotions and more. In telling its story, Morgan offers a touching reminder that however trite it might seem, the old-fashioned cross-stitched motto, "Home Sweet Home," framed on the walls and inscribed in the yearning hearts of families everywhere, could hardly be more contemporary.
Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.