“Not far from here, I have seen a house held up by the hands of trees. This is its story.”
So states the title page of this illustrated work with prose by Ted Kooser (who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry) and images by Jon Klassen.
Inspired by the abandoned house that the author’ passed nearly every day for more than thirty years, House Held up by Trees is a story of patience and persistence in more than one way.
He speaks of this, against a backdrop of the “real” house in this video. There it is: falling-down, decrepit, unlived in.
That broken home is the inspiration for the book’s cover and the later pages of the story, but at the beginning, the house is a bright and cozy saltbox cottage.
Jon Klassen’s rendering of it is clean and sharp, but the colouring is soft and washed. The brightest shade is a weak red, marking the front door, two small metal-frame chairs and an even smaller table between them, and a car parked at the end of the trail of well-worn tire-tracks.
The starkest parts of the image are the tire-tracks, which bisect the long panel of grass, and the roof, which is black, except for a small gable of white which matches the house’s framework.
“When it was new, the house stood alone on a bare square of earth.” The house, you see, is introduced in the first sentence, but, in fact, the real star of the story is that bare square of earth.
“There was a newly planted lawn around it, but not a single tree to give shade in summer or to rattle its bare twigs in the winter cold.”
And there is still not a single tree around it for more than half the book. The man who lives there has meticulously pulled up all the tiny sprouts (even before they could become saplings).
He has always done so, but after his children — a boy and girl, who only appear partially or at a distance — grow up and move to the city, the pristine lawn becomes even more important to him.
“Trees are not easily discouraged, however, and every summer they would send more seeds flying his way.”
Klassen’s artwork subtly supports this element of the plot, the passage of time, with the dual set of chairs becoming a single chair which remains on the property even after a For Sale sign appears at the side of the road.
“And the winged seeds kept coming, and then the little sprouts came up, waving a leaf or two.”
He depicts the house mostly from a distance, often with more of the page devoted to the land which surrounds it than to the house itself, sometimes only a portion of it visible though on a larger scale.
“As it happened, nobody wanted to buy the house. Nobody could explain why, but it just didn’t seem like a house where anybody wanted to live. That happens sometimes.”
In the second half of the book, the hues and shading changes, the siding is smudged with neglect and the black that once made the roof bold is now reserved for the night-time sky and the storm in the trees (and the roof leaks, rots, collapses).
“The winds pushed at the house, but the young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and stronger, they held it together as if it was a bird’s nest in the fingers of their branches.”
Well, it’s not a spoiler: you know from the title that the house will be help up by trees. And, anyway, isn’t that the most beautiful passage?
The artwork evokes print-making and leaf-rubbings. The prose is fable-like and deliberate. The House Held up by Trees is a story for all ages.*
(Well, all but the youngest children, those still small enough to crawl beneath the bushes as the boy and girl do in the story’s beginning.)