Harper's dad is divorcing her beloved stepmother, Jane. Even worse, Harper has lost her stepsister, Tess. The divorce divides them, just when her best friend Gabriel betrays her. Harper decides to get away for the summer and joins a volunteer program to build a house for a family in Tennesee who lost their home in a tornado. (Not that she knows a thing about building a house.) Soon she's living in a funky motel and laboring long days in blazing heat with a quirky, terrific group of kids. Working alongside Teddy, the son of the family for whom they are building the house, Harper and Teddy's partnership turns into a summer romance. Learning to trust and love Teddy isn't easy for Harper, but it's the first step toward finding her way back home.
An Excerpt fromHow to Build a House
The world is drowning.
It's being swallowed up. Glaciers are melting. Oceans are rising.
It's an indisputable fact: We're ruining the planet.
I'm finding it hard to keep this in mind gazing out my window. From where I'm sitting things look, well, dry. The earth looks thirsty. All I can see is dusty brown. Miles and miles of it stretching on forever.
Here comes a flight attendant now with her big block of a metal cart to ask me if I'd like something to drink.
If I'm thirsty.
I order a diet root beer. She smiles. Diet root beer is not a beverage she keeps in the recesses of her metal cart.
Okay. Make it a Diet Sprite.
Out of luck again.
I take water. No ice.
I swore off regular soda about a month ago and took up the diet variety. This has nothing to do with my body image, which I'll confess, like most of us, isn't exactly stellar. But this is about something bigger than just my thighs. It's about the national obesity epidemic. It's about taking a stand against the sugar water that's turning our children into Oompa-Loompas.
So I stopped.
I know diet soda isn't great for you either, but you have to start somewhere. And anyway, right now I'm drinking water. No ice.
We're about an hour away.
I've flown over this part of the country before. Many times. When you live in California and you have relatives in New York, everything in between feels like a big inconve-nience. It's what keeps you from them, or here from there, and you want it out of your way as quickly as possible because your headphones aren't working, and anyway you've already seen the movie three times.
But today I'm watching that big inconvenience and how it's changed from a flat, endless grid of look-alike houses to snowcapped mountains to red valleys to dusty brown, thirsty earth. Today I'm waiting to be dropped down in the middle of it.
To be more precise, I'm going to Bailey, Tennessee, which almost nobody has ever heard of.
If you watch TV or read the newspaper or if you have a pulse, then you know about what happened in New Orleans. You know about the hurricane with the name of a princess that left the city underwater.
But that wasn't the world's last catastrophe.
Catastrophes come, and they come. They come in all shapes and sizes, one after the other, lined up like planes in the sky, waiting for their turn to land. The tornado in Bailey came this past April, and nobody paid attention except for one small organization with a teen volunteer program where I am spending my summer vacation.
Sure, the tornado in Bailey wreaked havoc on the lives of an insignificant number of people when you compare it to Hurricane Katrina, but when it's your life . . . I doubt it feels insignificant to you.
Tornadoes. They're just another indication that the planet is going to hell in a handbasket. A handbasket that's been meticulously crafted and woven by us, the backward-looking members of the human race. If it weren't for how we're ruining things with our trash and our gas emissions and the way we're turning the planet into an Easy-Bake Oven, there might not have even been a category F4 tornado in Bailey, Tennessee.
Then again, maybe it would have come anyway.
Tornadoes can happen out of nowhere. Without warning.
* * *
It's one of those sad stories. I hesitate to even talk about it, because when I do, people start to feel sorry for me, and that isn't necessary.
My mother died when I was two.
Okay. Now I've said it. Now I can get that out of the way.
The important thing is that my dad didn't die. He lived. He still lives. In fact, right now he's probably back at his office, after fighting through traffic from the airport, listening to one of his patients drone on and on, staring out the window. And then he'll see a plane flying overhead with a white, gauzy streak trailing behind it, and he'll wonder why it seemed like a good idea to let me go all the way to Tennessee for the summer.
This isn't the first time I've run away.
Once, when we were about eight, Tess and I stuffed a backpack with a towel, some socks and a box of Lucky Charms. We figured what's the point in running away unless someone knows about it?
So we told Dad.
He said fine. Just remember, you aren't allowed to cross the street.
We stopped at the corner and ate a few handfuls of stale Lucky Charms before turning. We turned the next corner, and the next, until we arrived back where we'd started: at our own front door.
It isn't like that now. I'm running away, and I'm not only crossing the street, I'm crossing this dried-out country and I won't be back for twelve weeks and Dad is going to miss me because he'll be all alone.
Tess is gone.
So is Rose.
So, of course, is Jane.
He has Cole, sure, but Cole is only six, and what kind of company is a six-year-old who talks to insects? Especially when Dad sees him only some weekends and every other Wednesday night?
I guess I should start at the beginning.
There are so many beginnings to choose from. There's me and my birth almost eighteen years ago with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, a detail Dad likes to remind me about when I do something particularly boneheaded. There's Mom's death, which although it's an ending, the Big Ending, is also the beginning of my life without a mom. Then there's when Dad met Jane and the beginning of the only family I've ever known.
Yes. I'll start there.