Harper Evans lost her real mother when she was two, but three years later her father remarried, bringing a wonderful new stepmother with two daughters into her life. Tess, the younger of the girls, was the same age as Harper, and the two children quickly became inseparable. Harper is now seventeen, and her idyllic family has disintegrated, torn apart by her father's infidelity. Tess and Harper, who had grown up "sharing a room and sharing clothes," barely speak. To escape the sad ruins of the home that had once been everything to her, Harper joins a teen volunteer organization called "Homes from the Heart," journeying from California to faraway Tennessee for the summer to build a new house for a family whose old one has been destroyed by a tornado. The members of the group, who hail from all parts of the country, quickly form new friendships and develop into a community as they work together in the stifling heat each day, learning and executing the rudiments of construction. Summer romances abound, and Harper, who at home had always been a wallflower in her high school social scene, develops a close relationship with Teddy, the son of the family for whom the house is being built. Even though their home has been destroyed, Teddy's family is loving and cohesive, and they take Harper willingly into their lives, filling the void left by the dissolution of her own family unit.
Through her relationship with Teddy, Harper discovers a sense of affirmation and belonging, and their relationship grows, even though both of them know that their time together will be temporary, at least for now. Parting is painful at summer's end, but Harper emerges from her experiences with newfound serenity and strength. Because Teddy chose her, and loved her, Harper can believe she is a person of worth, and because of his insistence that she take the first step to salvage her relationship with Tess, she finds the courage to "fix things" with her stepsister. Most important of all, Harper takes away from the summer a mantra to live by:
...if you enjoy your life in the moment, if you're happy and you live well, then that painful past begins to recede and you'll be more open to possibilities in the future.
Published in 2008, Dana Reinhardt's How to Build a House is notable for its strong, believable characters and pertinent subject matter. Harper Evans, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, is especially engaging, with her attitude of dour cynicism, honest introspection, and vulnerability. The book is constructed in an interesting format, with the chapters shifting back and forth between "Here" and "Home," the former relating the events of Harper's summer in Tennessee, and the latter providing background about her life in California and the causes and effects of her father's and stepmother's devastating divorce. The story is built around the metaphor of home-building, in the literal sense, as Harper and the group build a house from the ground up for Teddy's family, and in the figurative sense, as she learns to rebuild and nurture the relationships that make a house a home. Although the book might be problematic for younger teen readers because of its sexual content, its sensitive handling of realistic subject matter will hold appeal for the older part of the young-adult reading population.