When I was in high school, I cleaned summer rental homes alongside my aunt. She lived on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, only reachable by ferry. Year-round, only 900 people lived there. The summertime crowds swelled with residents of Massachusetts and New York flocking to the island to “summer,” as a verb. I cleaned their houses.
The funny thing about cleaning houses is you rarely meet the people who own it or those who temporarily reside in it. Instead, you appear after they are gone or before they arrive, magically replacing bed linens and rolls of toilet paper, altering the space so that each guest feels as though they are the first and last ones there.
The best thing about cleaning houses is inhabiting each space, however briefly. I loved admiring the structures themselves, the views from each window, the decor sprinkled throughout each room, the remnants that people left in their homes while knowing that other guests would be there. To me, each item was a clue to unlock someone else’s inner life. The food left in the fridge spoke to how many were here and what they desired. The amount of sand in the shower told me how often they went to the beach. The family photographs on the mantel were their own free-standing family tree.
Don’t even get me started on what the bookcases said.
So it is with great relish that I cracked open the spine of Carson Ellis’s Home. I first encountered Ellis’s work while living in Portland, OR. On the third floor of the central library was a gallery, and there, temporarily encased in glass, were drawings and illustrations from Wildwood, a series written by Colin Meloy (frontman of The Decemberists) and illustrated by Ellis (the two happen to be married). Ever since, I have been obsessed with her work, from Home and Wildwood to The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.
Paging through Home is like cleaning summer rental homes, but without the ensuing muscle soreness. It is a way of inhabiting the spaces of others without having to leave the couch. For children, I imagine this expands their idea of the world, which, until now, may be limited to the homes of relatives. Growing up in New Hampshire, all the houses looked the same to me. Without books, or old copies of National Geographic, I wouldn’t have known that people live in apartments, boat houses, studios, underwater, and in space.
This book is “a meditation on the concept of home.” It’s a simple four-letter word we all learn to speak and spell quite young, but what does it mean? Where is “home”? Is it a place? Is it a group of people? By far my favorite aspect of Ellis’s writing is the posing of questions. Rather than give children (or adults) all the answers, Ellis asks us, “Who in the world lives here? And why?”
Home is a treasure trove of illustrations, a book beautiful enough to display on one’s shelves, and substantive enough to read again, and again, and again.