The Kingsley House

Arliss Ryan, Author
Arliss Ryan, Author St. Martin's Press $25.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-312-24209-1
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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Inspired by the author's own family story, this first novel, spanning five generations of the Kingsley clan, is an ambitious historical saga. In 1843, Nathan Kingsley is proud of the new house he's just built for his bride, Mary, in the fledgling farm community of Livonia Township, Mich.; this abode, which over the years comes to be known as Kingsley House, forms the physical heart of the narrative. A sparsely decorated but cozy farm house for the first generation, it's adversity a grand or noble homestead. Rather, it becomes a well-worn testimony to the Kingsley family's endurance in the face of hardship--the difficulties of farming on poor land, the 1887 winter diphtheria epidemic that takes the lives of two young Kingsley children and renders their mother insane, the family black sheep who connives twice to sell the treasured home to the highest bidder. Ryan attempts to contextualize the Kingsleys' trials by evoking historical elements: the Underground Railroad, the urban development of nearby Detroit and the impact of WWII on American society. But these broader world events are secondary to the churning family drama. Opening with an illustrated family tree, each of the novel's five parts introduces a new generation and centers around a critical character. This structure doesn't help the plot cohere, however, and the novel winds up reading like five separate tales tenuously drawn together by the author's insistent accounting of the names, ages and relations of the characters. While an uneven literary endeavor, Ryan's first effort is a sympathetic, earnest fictionalization of a colorful family history. (Apr.) FYI: The real Kingsley house was removed from its foundations in 1977 and moved to a historic village near Detroit.
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