The Irresistible Henry House

Written by Lisa Grunwald
Review by Helene Williams

Henry House is an orphan, yet he has many mothers. He is what was known as a “practice baby” in a home economics program at a small college in northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Students in the program would take turns caring for these babies, learning the latest theories on scientific child-rearing and efficient household operation. The babies would be adopted after a couple of years, and a new practice baby would arrive.

Henry, however, was different: Martha Gaines, the practice house program director, fell in love with him, very much in spite of herself and her teachings. So Henry grew up in the practice house, always surrounded by eager student mothers. In some ways that seems like a marvelous life, but for Henry, it increasingly was not the case. Instead of bonding with one person (or mother), he doesn’t build real connections with anyone, even though he is very skilled in getting what he wants from women.

This marvelous story follows Henry as he hones his craft both with women and in the animation industry, from California to New York to London; we see the inner workings of Walt Disney’s studios while Mary Poppins is being filmed, and we also spend time in Beatles-mad London during the late 1960s. Based on real programs in operation at American universities throughout the first 60 years of the twentieth century, the basics of Grunwald’s story came from her viewing an exhibit on Home Economics, which is still available ( The combination of the imagined life of one of these practice babies with the changing times—feminism, Dr. Benjamin Spock, civil rights—makes for delightful reading that is at times both funny and heart-wrenching.