The House by the Lake: The True Story of a House and the Four Families Who Made it Home
written by Thomas Harding, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
Candlewick Press, 2020, 48 pages
We don't often think about the history of a house, and yet a building can actually be a silent but important witness to history. At least that's what author Thomas Harding must have thought when he wrote his first book about the house by the lake. Curious about a slice of family history, he began researching the summer house that was built by his great-grandfather, Dr. Alfred Alexander, on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. The result was the 464-page book The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany. Published in 2015, it is the story of the five unrelated families who lived in the house through 100 years of 20th century Germany history. Amazingly, this fascinating history has been adapted into a very accessible picture book for older readers that loses none of the history and poignancy of the adult book.
In 1927, Harding's grandparents and their four children moved into the house, spending happy days there, swimming in the lake, raising chickens, growing asparagus and listening to stories at night. But when the Nazis came into power, a group of soldiers forced the Alexander family out of their summer home, leaving it empty.
A year later, a new family moved in - a father, mother and two little boys. As the little boys grow older, they joined Hitlerjunge. But when the father was order to fight in Hitler's war, the family decided to leave the house altogether and run away.
With the war still raging, a husband and wife sought refuge in the empty house. It was a cold, bitter winter, but they were able to safe and stay warm in the house. But they too fled the house as the war ended when the Soviet army arrived, shooting at the house from the tanks, chipping the fireplace and breaking the windows.
Next came "the man with the fluffy hat" who fixed the damage done to the house by war and who made the house feel alive again with his children and their activities. But then, the man heard the sound of Soviet soldiers building a wall through the backyard of the house by the lake. Life became gray as the children were made to work and the man began to spy on this neighbors.
After many years, the wall came down, but the man in the fluffy hat had aged and found it harder to take care of the house. After he died, it was 15 years before the house was once again fixed up by another young man until it shone like new. A picture of the young man's great-grandparents was hung over the fireplace and "Once again the house by the lake was happy."
Readers are probably not used to a building being a protagonist, and feel the story should be told from the point of view of the families that lived in the house instead. But this is the house's story more than it is their story, and like its human occupants, the house's history is organic and changing. I actually like that Harding kept the focus on the house.
House as protagonist allows for some interesting symbolism. The freedom to come and go symbolized by open door of the first family contrasted to the key to the house in the hands of the Nazi soldier getting reader to close the house up and the loss of freedom. The key motif returns toward the end of the book when the last occupant, Harding himself, returns to the house, opening the door again.You might also notice the black cat that roams freely in first pages, last seen walking out the door, and returns at the end. The changing condition of the house over time is also symbolic of war and peace.
The text has an almost fairytale quality to it, while the mixed-media illustrations show more than the words say, filling in a lot of the details. The illustrations are textured and layered, with small and large details, even while they have an almost unfocused, dream-like feel to them. Happy times are captured is bright, colorful hues, while war and occupation are done in a much darker palette.
The House by the Lake is a fascinating look at history through the lens of a stationary object and a valuable classroom tool for studying history.
FYI: Who are all the un-named people who occupied the house? Short biographies of the four different occupants are included in the back matter.
You can find a very useful Teacher's Guide for this book courtesy of the publisher HERE
This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Candlewick Press