Saturday, May 21, 2005


Welcome to Iowa

When my family moved into an old Victorian in Iowa City last fall, we were in for a bit of a shock. Jen and I showed up at the bank for the usual interminable signing of final mortgage and deed documents, when they matter-of-factly handed us a folder filled everything relating to our parcel of property -- court records, valuations, lot maps, even arrest records -- dating from the founding of the Iowa Territory in 1838 up to the present. And not photocopies, either -- they were original documents. They showed that though the house is a century old, we were only the third owners: both families previous to us had lived here for about a half-century apiece.

I was staggered. "This is for us?" I asked. State law, I was told. Almost unique in all the US, Iowa homeowners are handed over the complete historical documentation of their property upon purchase, and in the original yellowing copies -- so please do not lose them.

I've often thought of that moment since then. It gives this state a different feel than any other; you are never just passing through here. The presumption is that from this point onward, you are an Iowan; you are a part of its history and entrusted to preserve it accordingly.

Which brings me a piece in today's Telegraph (reg. req.) by novelist Julie Myerson, about her latest work, Home: The History of Everyone Who Ever Lived In Our House -- just issued in paperback, it's a nonfiction delving into the history of her London home:

When, two or three years ago, I told people I was going to find out everything possible about everyone who'd ever lived in our 130-year-old house, and write a book about it, some of them told me it was a brilliant idea, but others asked me what I would do if I found out something really awful had happened in it - a murder, for instance?.... In fact, it was the very ordinariness of our home - a medium-sized, red-brick, Victorian terraced house in Clapham - that made its history beguiling to me. That, and the fact that no one seemed to have bothered to dignify an ordinary house with its own biography.

It was while researching my novel Laura Blundy that I stumbled on a census for 1881 and discovered that our house had once been home to a Victorian "author and journalist" and his wife and three children aged 13, 11 and nine - the exact ages of my own at the time. The idea of this spooky parallel family was irresistible to me. I had to know more.

The story of a house, like George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century In The Life of an American Summer Home, or even a group of houses (e.g. Edward Platt's fascinating Leadville) is a very small genre, but it's an idea that I frankly adore. Unfortunately, Myerson's book doesn't appear to have a US publication, so you'll have to find it on Amazon UK or as an import order at Powell's, who have it listed for $21.50....

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