“Book Review: Skinny House“
Reviewed by Samantha Hui
A gentle reminder that history cannot be separated from the people who lived it
Skinny House is a true story about an architectural oddity with good bones and inhabitants with good hearts. The book is a carefully researched historical memoir that contextualizes the construction of the Skinny House in the eras of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. But, more than that, this book is about the resentments and regrets that can take hold of personal and complex family relationships.
“Each of us has an innate ability to paint over our family’s graffiti and produce a fresh canvas of dreams.”
The Skinny House, constructed in Mamaronek, New York in 1932, still stands to this day. During the Roaring Twenties and height of the Harlem Renaissance, brothers Nathan and Willard Seely established their construction company with the goal of offering African Americans both affordable housing and stock they could invest in.
The company found major success, and Nathan even built a beautiful family home for his wife Lillian on a plot of company land. However, with effects of the Great Depression, Nathan was forced to sell much of his land as well as the house he built for his family. As an act of devotion, Nathan resourcefully put what little land he owned to use: he built a ten-foot wide, three-story tall “Skinny House” for his family to live in.
“[Skinny House] was, and is, an American parable that embodies values that we all cherish, such as hard work, optimism, and creativity. But it is also a story balanced with disaster, humiliation, and conflicts between parents and children.”
This story is not merely a narrative of hope and success against all odds. With Nathan unable to receive any work, their family complete with two children was forced to uproot their relatively comfortable lives and move to the cramped, plumbing-less environment of Skinny House. Resentment grew wherever there was room for it.
The story of the Skinny House is ultimately about contradictions, whether that be the Harlem Renaissance’s impetus for creation in spite of the racism and segregation working to stifle it or a tall home sitting on the smallest sliver of land.
“I suspect their inability to get along was due to the fact that they were both sensitive and vulnerable men at a time when those traits seemed neither practical nor wise.”
What began as a school family lineage project is now a beautiful memoir forever preserving the legacy of the Seely family and the national history that contextualized the Skinny House. The heart of this book comes from its focus on the family’s dynamic from generation to generation. The author, Julie L. Seely, offers her initial perspective and preconceptions surrounding her father and her grandfather, but moves the narrative toward a more wholistic and honest portrayal of both men’s situations. The story breaks away from idealization and resentment and replaces them with historical and emotional truth.
“No matter our cultural background, the quest for one’s legacy is so important because it affords us all the opportunity to piece together our unique stories and to make us whole again.”
The creation of the actual Skinny House was informed by the harrowing history surrounding the Great Depression and Jim Crow; however, the story of Skinny House is nestled in the personal and singular lives of those who inhabited it.
This memoir offers readers a peek into not only a window of history but also the lives of the very real people on the other side of it. It’s an act of love, similar to the establishment of Skinny House as a historical landmark in New York, to help future generations recognize the story that took place within these tight walls.
Genre: Nonfiction / Family / History
Print Length: 239 pages
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