A House That Once Was
Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith
Quiet in its impact, this is one of those slow burn books that carry on working inside you long after you’ve closed it.
Immediately I started reading it, I was taken back to one of my childhood walks along a road close to where I lived, not in a wood atop a hill like the one Julie Fogliano describes, but a suburban one. There was surprisingly, a ramshackle-looking house overgrown with thick foliage, empty, but some said a witch woman lived within.
Unlike the two children in this contemplative lyrical story, neither I, nor any of my friends dared venture inside although, as the children here, we did speculate and make up stories about possible previous occupants, albeit from the safety of the rackety gate. That house has long gone, replaced by a new development, but its memory remains to this day.
‘Deep in the woods/ is a house/ just a house/ that once was / but now isn’t/ a home.’ In fact it’s derelict and totally uninhabited save for the intruding textured foliage Lane Smith has woven between its cracks and in and out of its broken doors, roof and windows.
It’s one of these windows through which the boy and girl climb to explore.
Within, they discover the ephemera of a life that once was: a shelf of books, old toys, art materials, old photographs.
‘Who was this someone who ate beans for dinner/ who sat by this fire/ who looked in this mirror?’ ask the narrators, ‘Who was this someone / whose books have been waiting / whose bed is still made / whose pictures are fading? … Who was this someone / who left without packing / someone who’s gone but is still everywhere?’
Ghostly echoes there, until the children begin to ponder upon who the residents might have been, becoming increasingly playful in their imaginings, Lane Smith’s scenes growing brighter as they do so.
(At the back of the book is a note explaining the two different techniques employed to create the ‘present day’ and ‘imagined scenes”’)
Still wondering, the two eventually return to their own home where warmth and dinner await.
Full of mystery, intensely beautiful, is this entrancing story of what is, what was, and what might have been, all seamlessly melded together through Folgiano’s telling and Smith’s showing.