In My Father’s House

Before we get started, let’s look at the cover of this book that perfectly encompasses everything all 90s historical fiction was about: clothes, and wars going on in the distance in soft-focus. And it was a good call by the cover artist to go with 90s hair instead of period-appropriate 1860s hair, because it is one era that has not translated well.

In My Father’s House, Ann Rinaldi, 1993.

in my father's house.jpg

This is a Deep Cut Ann Rinaldi—and I know I’ve complained about her before because the lustre really wore off quickly after I was no longer 12—but this one was better than some of the others I’ve reread. Partially because I, uh, don’t think I read this one as a kid? I didn’t remember a single thing and I feel like I might have, so I think I was reading this one for the very first time. My biggest problem with this book is that it’s boring. The whole thing feels like you’re driving towards some kind of major conclusion, but…there isn’t one. Besides the end of the war, I guess. (Should that be a spoiler? 152 years later?)

This book is one of many Rinaldi books based on a true story, and that’s the story of a man who owned the land that the first battle of the Civil War, First Manassas, was built on. He moved so he would never have to see another soldier again, and ended up moving to Appomattox, where the war was ended in his parlor. That is a true story and it’s one of history’s great coincidences, and would make for an excellent book. This is not that book. This is about Oscie Mason, the stepdaughter of Will McLean, the man in question. Unfortunately, Oscie is not a great character. She’s supposed to come off as plucky and responsible, but in reality she’s just kind of irritating.

This book takes forever to go anywhere. Oscie’s real father, who was a doctor, dies when she is quite young, leaving her mother a widow with three daughters—her sister Maria, who is eight, and Oscie who is seven, and their younger sister Sarah, who is four. Their mother is consequently courted by Will McLean, who is a merchant, and they marry even though Oscie doesn’t like him. Here’s the thing—Will McLean is an amazingly complex character for a YA novel—he loves his wife and cares deeply about his stepdaughters (and later his own children), he profiteers on the war, he owns slaves but he’s an abolitionist sort-of, and so on. And yet it’s never truly explained why Oscie dislikes him—it’s mostly just that their personalities don’t mesh. And Oscie is seven when she decides she doesn’t like him, and never really reconsiders. I thought a lot of dumb shit at seven and then figured it I knew better!

Anyway, Will hires a Northern governess to teach the girls, Miss Buttonworth, or Button. (Side note: at one point Maria asks Button “Are you a feminist?” which took me right out of it because the word feminist and feminism weren’t in common parlance until the 1890s. It’s like someone from the 1940s describing something as “tubular.” I’ll stop.) Oscie’s mother gets pregnant, and Oscie is dreadfully upset about one of the slaves that McLean has purchased—a house slave named Mary Ann, whom Oscie thinks is going to witch-doctor them all into sickness. Mary Ann has a hold on Oscie’s sister Sarah, and on the same day that Oscie’s mother gives birth to a little boy, Sarah goes ice skating on the creek, falls in, and dies of a fever. In a way it is Mary Ann’s fault—she had spent so much time telling Sarah stories about the icy creek that Sarah couldn’t stay away—she’s just four—but McLean won’t have Mary Ann sold away from her husband, so she stays. Instead Will sends her to the fields.

Then we blitz through another few years, Oscie’s mother has another baby, and the people in Alexandria, the nearby town, start to get frustrated with their family, saying that Will McLean doesn’t really believe in the cause of the Confederacy. Well, he doesn’t. When the shooting starts at Fort Sumter, Button leaves to go back North, but they manage to pass occasional letters through to her anyway. Because the McLeans are a well-known family, they receive many of the officers in the area, including a captain by the name of Alex, whom Oscie immediately becomes obsessed with. Unfortunately, he’s married, but this doesn’t stop him from spending all his spare time with Oscie, “seeing the grounds,” and generally using the cloak of second-cousinship as a thin disguise for an emotional affair. Oscie is completely in love and completely stupid.

The Confederate army want to use the house and barns, so McLean agrees and arranges to move the family. Oscie cries about how much she loves Alex and how brave and honourable he is, and I roll my eyes sixty-five times, and then thankfully the McLeans move far away and I pray that’s the last we hear of Alex because he sounds insufferable. Anyway, they move to Charlottesville for a while, where Oscie’s mother has a meltdown about how McLean is profiting too much off the war and losing faith in the Confederacy, to which Oscie is kind of like….yeah, because it’s pointless and nothing good is going to happen?

For most of the war McLean is away with his merchant work, running goods in through the blockade and making crazy money off them. After one battle, the family takes in a Yankee soldier and cousin of a friend, Michah, whom Maria promptly falls in love with. Michah swears he won’t take up arms again, and Maria begs and begs that they are allowed to get married, which McLean keeps saying no to until the war is over. Then he moves to the family to Appomattox, hoping that they’ll have some peace there, but it turns out everyone in Appomattox hates them because they haven’t lived there for eighty generations and also they’ve heard that McLean is a big giant profiteer. Then when McLean sends a big crate of goods to the family—things they can’t get anywhere else—there’s nearly a riot, and Mary Ann’s friend, the free black man Claibourne Humbles, is the one who keeps them all from getting their heads broken in.

Oscie promptly falls in love with Thomas, who is going to join a guerrilla brigade just as soon as he’s old enough, and is extremely upset with McLean refuses to allow them to become formally betrothed. McLean’s reasoning is that a man who joins guerrilla warfare might not be the best choice of husbands once he’s back, and Oscie goes on and on and on about how it won’t change him and blah blah blah. Doesn’t matter, he won’t budge.

I’m blazing through this all, but finally we’re at the end, and Grant and Lee are meeting right in Appomattox. Oscie’s mother is pregnant again and is doing her best to feed as many men coming through as she can, and McLean is throwing a fit, telling her she absolutely can’t, and they ought to close up the house and stay away from anyone coming through. They have a massive fight, and Oscie’s mother confesses that she desperately wants the Will McLean back that she fell in love with, the one who stood for something like the Confederacy. Oscie tells McLean that her mother just wants him to show that he stands for something. So McLean offers up his home for the generals to hold their surrender meeting, and it’s signed right in their parlor—afterwards the parlor is ransacked by men looking for souvenirs, and even though they pay for what they take, there’s nothing to be done to keep them out.

After it’s all over, McLean gives his blessing for Oscie to go see Thomas, who is wounded nearby, and Oscie thanks McLean for all he’s done for their family. “’I was always just doing my job, Oscie,’ his voice was wondering. ‘Like I always promised you I would.’”

Rating: C-. Okay. It’s not as deadly boring as some other Ann Rinaldi books. And the story of the McLean family is truly a very interesting one. But I just hate Oscie as a character! All her character growth arc is presented as something she already knew—so she’s exactly the same at seven as she is at twenty. It feels so pointless. The only character I really enjoyed was Will McLean, and I would gladly read a whole book about him, but everyone else in this entire book kind of sucked or was straight from central casting. The subplot with Mary Ann, the house slave turned field hand, is gravely wasted, and overall I didn’t see the point of it. It’s not a bad book. It’s not badly written or anything. There are some great references—the title, In My Father’s House, both refers to a Bible verse that becomes important, Oscie’s family home that belonged to her late father, and her new home with her stepfather at Appomattox—which is a nice little touch. But other than that, I can’t say I was all that impressed with this one.

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